Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Neutral Evaluation of Sinkhole Claims by Michael Laurato

The Florida legislature has included an alternative dispute resolution process in the Florida's sinkhole law to assist policyholders and insurers resolve disputed sinkhole claims.  This process is simply known as "Neutral Evaluation."  Alternative dispute resolution is a term of legal art that refers to a settlement process, the goal of which is to amicably resolve a legal claim by mutual agreement of the parties, as opposed to actual litigation of the claim in court.  Mediation, either pre-suit or court-ordered, is a common form of alternative dispute resolution used thorughout Florida to resolve disputes without litigation.  Arbitration, both binding and non-binding, represent another common form of alternative dispute resolution utilized to avoid litigation.  In insurance matters, another common form of alternative dispute resolution is often built-in to the policy itself in the form an "appraisal" provision. 

Much like other forms of alternative dispute resolution, Neutral Evaluation has as its stated goal the desire to assist in the resolution of disputed sinkhole claims and to avoid burdening the courts with a lawsuit that may be amenable to early resolution.  Pursuant to the sinkhole statute, neutral evaluation is mandatory, if requested by either party, but it is non-binding.  Once invoked by either the policyholder or insurer, the statute requires, among other things, the parties to participate in the neutral evaluation process.  In a nutshell, neutral evaluation envisions that a "neutral" qualified expert will review all the scientific data in the case and determine whether the policyholder's or the insurer's expert is correct.  The evaluator's opinion on which expert is correct is then published in a report and provided to the parties.  Again, the neutral evaluator's opinion is non-binding, but, under the statute, the neutral evaluator's report is admissible in evidence at any subsequent trial. 

The fact that the neutral evaluator actually makes a decision on which party's findings on sinkhole or repair methodology is correct makes the statutory process more akin to non-binding arbitration or appraisal.   In both of those alternative dispute resolution processes, an arbitrer in arbitration or an umpire in appraisal, actually make a final decision in the case.  In mediation, on the otherhand,  the mediator does not actually decide which party is correct on the merits.  For this reason, neutral evaluation is a process that should be taken seriously, because the neutral evaluator will make a decision on the merits that under the statute the jury will be informed about. 

Sinkhole claims present special challenges, because of the complexity of the science and geology involved.  On the legal end, litigation of sinkhole claims often is an equally complex mixture of science and law. The neutral evaluation process adds an additional layer of complexity and for that reason, the importance of the process should not be overlooked.  Neutral evaluation first provides an opportunity to resolve a disputed claim and avoid the risk of total loss often assocaited with a trial.  Any policyholder should relish the opportunity to amicably settle a disputed claim.  After all, litigation against any large insurance company that has denied a claim is fraught with stress and risk.  Next, an intelligent and prepared approach to neutral evaluation may result in the neutral evaluator actually finding in the homeowner's favor and against the insurer, resulting in another opportunity to convince the insurance company to abide by the policy coverage and pay the claim. 

For further information about Florida's neutral evaluation process, please visit the Florida Department of Financial Services at http://www.myfloridacfo.com/Consumers/mediation/SettlingSinkholeClaim.htm.  The site contains a consumer pamphlet discussing the neutral evaluation process.  Of course, if any policyholder has any questions about the neutral evaluation process, it is recommended to consult with an attorney experienced in handling sinkhole claims and the neutral evaluation process. 

Michael V. Laurato, Esq.
Austin & Laurato, P.A.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Florida Sinkhole Law: Robert Austin & Michael Laurato Discuss Proposed C...

Florida Sinkhole Law: Robert Austin & Michael Laurato Discuss Proposed C...: "Both the state senate and the state house are considering bills that propose substantial changes in Florida's sinkhole law. In our&nbs..."

Florida Sinkhole Law: Robert Austin & Michael Laurato Discuss Proposed C...

Florida Sinkhole Law: Robert Austin & Michael Laurato Discuss Proposed C...: "Both the state senate and the state house are considering bills that propose substantial changes in Florida's sinkhole law. In our&nbs..."

Florida Sinkhole Law: Michael Laurato and Robert Austin Looking Forward ...

Florida Sinkhole Law: Michael Laurato and Robert Austin Looking Forward ...: "Recent changes regarding Florida's Sinkhole law have effected the manner in which insurance companies defend sinkhole claims. Over the..."

Florida Sinkhole Law: Plant City Woman Reportedly Falls In Sinkhole by M...

Florida Sinkhole Law: Plant City Woman Reportedly Falls In Sinkhole by M...: "Both local and National media have recently reported that a Plant City woman exited her home and fell into a sinkhole. According to th..."

Plant City Woman Reportedly Falls In Sinkhole by Michael Laurato

Both local and National media have recently reported that a Plant City woman exited her home and fell into a sinkhole.  According to the reports, the woman was forced to dial 911, because she was unable to escape from the sinkhole under her own power and without assistance from law enforcement.  The responding officer held the woman by her wrists, until fire rescue was ulitmately able to extract her from the hole.  Fortunately, it does not appear from the media reports that anyone was seriously injured or that the family's home was seriously damaged or impacted.

While the story may appear strange, human encounters with sinkholes are more common than one may imagine.  First, many of the lakes, springs, and ponds throughout the state had there genesis as sinkholes.  Likewise, an aerial view of many areas of the state, including those known as "sinkhole alley," will reveal the presence of large circular depressions, similar in appearance to the craters present on the moon. Geologists describe they crater-like depressions as evidence of past, or relic, sinkhole activity. 

I have my own recent experience with a sinkhole to recount to help drive home the ubiquitous nature of sinkhole activity in many parts of the state.  Recently, while I leaving the Crawfish festival in Pinellas County after enjoying evening of Zaydeco music and Cajun culture (reminiscent of my college days at Tulane), I encountered a large circular depression in an open field and walked right through the middle of it.  Although I tripped slightly as I entered into the depression, it did not occur to me, until the following day, that I most likely walked through a developing sinkhole.  The point of the story is that, here, in Florida, sinkholes, and the evidence of them, are all around us and a part of what makes Florida unique and beautiful.  After all, limestone geology and hydrology are part of what make Weeki Wachi, Crystal River, and Homossasa Springs such amazing, unique, and beautiful places. 

This story of the woman falling into the sinkhole, while intriguing, imparts some important information about the formation of sinkholes in Florida.  First, while cover collapse sinkholes are rarer, relatively speaking, than other forms of sinkholes, they, nevertheless, do occur in Florida and many times, simply because the cover of the earth has collapsed, the sinkhole may not be obvious.  Second, periods of either heavy rain or drought often act as a catatalyst, activiting dormant sinkhole activity, causing a sudden cover collapse of the earth.  Third, these cover collapse sinkholes often occur suddenly, unexpectedly, and without notice.  Cover collapse sinkholes are unpredictable, in many respects.  Homeowners in sinkhole prone areas would be wise to take these lessons to heart.     

From the published photographs, it appears that the sinkhole the woman fell into was what is known as a "chimney" sink.  Chimney sinks are generally small, circular sinkholes.  A chimney sink is a form of "solution" sinkhole that is common to Florida geology.  A chimney sink forms when water, traveling through the limestone and into the aquafer, erodes a small diameter opening in the limestone.  The small opening is then in-filled with soils from above, causing a small circular opening in the earth.  Rain, and the subsequent water traveling down by the force of gravity through the soil strata, carries soil into these openings in the limestone, which, in turn, results in the ground opening.  This results is the formation of a small sinkhole, which extends from the surface, many times, down to the limestone, that takes the shape of a "chimney."  Thus, these types of sinkholes are colloquially refered to by the epynomous name, "chimney" sink.

Under Florida law, for any sinkhole--whether it is a chimney sink or other form of sinkhole--to implicate an the sinkhole law and sinkhole coverage, the sinkhole must cause some structural damage to the building.  Accordingly, a sinkhole in the middle of an open field that does not affect the structure of any building will most likely not trigger any coverage under a policy of insurance, even if it results in a cover collapse.

Sinkholes are often simply assoicated with the geological feature of the ground opening up or innocuous minor damage to buildings.  However, the recent events reported in Plant City provide us with a reminder that sinkhole activity in Florida is oftentimes unexpected, sudden, and potentially dangerous to life and property.  Most importantly, it is a reminder that sinkhole activity, although many times out of sight, should never be out of mind.  For those that live in sinkhole prone areas or in Florida's "sinkhole alley," vigilance and regular property inspections are the rule for family safety and preservation of propery, particularly after periods of heavy rain or drought.

For further information on the dangers of sinkhole activity in Florida and for information on what to do in case you encounter sinkhole activity, please visit the Florida Department of Financial Services and view the available consumer guide at http://www.myfloridacfo.com/sitePages/services/flow.aspx?ut=Consumer+Guides.  The cosumer guide entitled "What You Should Know About Sinkholes and Catastrophic Ground Cover Collapse" provides helfpul information about your potential encounter with one of Florida's most common geological features--the sinkhole.

Michael Laurato, Esq.
Austin & Laurato, P.A.