Dec
9
2016

Corless Barfield gets great result for client in Ocala structural damage trial

It has been a busy trial season and our trial team had another successful result in November. The trial was focused solely on the issue of whether structural damage was present or not, without anyone having even tested for sinkhole activity, the first of its kind as far as we can tell. The trial took place in Marion County, Ocala and was scheduled to last four days. The sides presented three days worth of evidence and were schedule to present closing arguments and receive the jury verdict on Thursday. The night before closings the two sides reached a settlement agreement that was extremely favorable for the homeowner, over three times what she demanded before trial to settle. Although there was never a verdict rendered this was certainly a tremendous result as evidenced by the homeowner shedding tears of happiness with the news.

Sep
30
2016

Corless Barfield wins sinkhole trial in Hillsborough County

Our firm took a denied sinkhole claim on a commercial property here in Tampa Florida to a jury last week and prevailed. The trial lasted four days and the jury returned a verdict in favor of our client, a local business owner, Thursday afternoon. The insurance company presented four experts and a corporate representative verse only tow experts presented by the business owner. The issues were extremely complex and at times confusing. The issues involved whether structural damage existed, whether sinkhole activity was a cause of those damages and whether sinkhole activity was the primary cause of the causes verse other excluded causes. We were proud to prevail on all of the issues on behalf of our client who was also extremely excited with the result

Sep
29
2016

Corless Barfield wins huge case in front of Florida Supreme Court in Johnson v. Omega Insurance

In 2010 my firm assumed representation of Kathy Johnson, an insured in Ocala with horrific damage to her home. Her claim was denied by Tower Hill (also named Omega Insurance). We hired another engineering firm who did more testing and found clear evidence of sinkhole activity. We moved forward with a lawsuit and shortly after being sued Tower Hill agreed to accept coverage and rescind its denial. Kathy Johnson signed a contract to begin repairing her home. We argued in front of the trial court judge that Tower Hill should bear the burden of  paying Johnson’s attorney fees under the existing law. The judge in Ocala agreed exactly with our position and granted those fees. Tower Hill decided to appeal the decision to the Fifth District Court of Appeals. That court reversed the trial court and opined that Johnson is not entitled to fees because she didn’t prove that Tower Hill acted “wrongfully” when  it denied her claim and therefore did not deserve to be punished. We appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court who agreed to hear the case. Probably less than 5% of cases appealed to the Supreme Court are actually heard.

The Supreme Court issued a 31 one page opinion today finding in Johnson’s favor and re-affirming her entitlement to attorney fees paid by her insurance company. The Supreme Court wrote that incorrectly denying a homeowners claim is what triggers the insurance company to pay fees. We do not need to go so far as to evaluate whether the insurance company was acting in bad faith. The Supreme Court expressed the importance of this law here in Florida and how an insured could not be expected to single-handedly take on a large insurance company by herself. They also expressed how a homeowner needs an expert lawyer and engineer to challenge the insurance company and both cost money.

The Supreme Court noted how Johnson, thorough our firm, did not present some frivolous claim but presented “cold hard facts” to support that Tower Hill was wrong in denying her claim. The Court pointed out that Johnson did the right thing in how proceeded with her claim and that it refused to0 punish her by making her food the bill for her legal fees. This is a huge victory not just for our firm and Kathy Johnson but all insureds throughout Florida. Local judges were letting insurance companies get away with too much and the Supreme Court recognized that and wrangled them all back in.

 

Sep
28
2016

Scientists discover deepest oceanic sinkhole in the world

Scientists have discovered a sinkhole in the ocean off the South China Sea that they believe to be the deepest ever recorded. This one called the Dragon Hole has been recorded at 300 meters or 987 feet deep. The previous record holder was the Blue Hole in the Bahamas at 202 meters. The hole appears to be self contained and contains over 20 species of fish. The holes appear when carbonate rocks dissolve. This is exactly how sinkholes form, when limestone, which is a carbonate rock, is dissolved away usually by acidic water. People may not know that you can dive sinkholes right here in Florida. One of the more famous ones, Devils Den, is in the Ocala area but there are many others throughout the state.

Sep
13
2016

Florida District Courts of Appeals continue to refuse to allow fee multipliers in sinkhole cases

As background to this issue, when a homeowner prevails against their insurance company on a sinkhole claim (or any insurance claim) the insurance company is required by statute to compensate the homeowners lawyer for their services. The court will look to how many hours the lawyer spent working on the case and then multiply that number by what the court believes the lawyer is worth per hour. In addition to that it has been allowed for decades here in Florida that the court could increase that number even more, we call this a multiplier. The court would consider things such as if the case was unique or complex or if the homeowner had difficulty finding a lawyer to even take the case in the first place. The court can also look at the potential risk of losing the case when the lawyer took it on. In other words, the goal is to reward lawyers who are willing to risk their time and their own money to take on a risky, unique or complicated case and do it on a contingency fee basis. Contingency fee means they only get paid if they win the case. Many judges at the trial court level have continued to award these multipliers to lawyers that win sinkhole trials but lately the appellate courts have been reversing these. The recent trend has been that its no longer difficult to find a lawyer to take on a sinkhole case these days and because there are so many sinkhole cases around now that they are no longer so unique or complex. Any lawyer that has ever represented anybody in a sinkhole claim should disagree. These cases are extremely expensive, time consuming and risky. They also remain extremely complex and unique due to the ever changing law that accompanies these cases. And of course, we can’t forget that to be a good sinkhole lawyer you also have to be a amateur geologist, contractor and engineer to boot. I just don’t understand the rationale behind these new cases other than they are being decided by people that don’t see the daily complex scientific and legal battles that we face.

Sep
9
2016

Sinkholes in NYC?

Thats right, well kind of. A sinkhole opened up on the Upper West Side of New York swallowing a BMW and part of a dance studio several weeks ago. Granted the sinkhole was the result of a water main break and not necessarily natural causes like we associate with sinkholes here in Florida. In similar news a sinkhole opened up in Miami on the turnpike. This was also the result of a water main break. I have always taken a little exception to these water main breaks even being called sinkholes. Sinkholes as we know them are natural causes and not man made. Most “sinkholes” portrayed in the news are actually the result of water mains and not naturally occurring.

Sep
5
2016

How does a hurricane affect sinkholes?

While the two may seem completely unrelated, a hurricane on the surface and a sinkhole below the ground, hurricanes, storms and heavy rains can have a dramatic impact on sinkhole formation. In fact, heavy rain may be the biggest driving force in sinkhole development. Everyone probably thinks of sinkhole activity as a hole below the ground and in a way that is right. However, without any movement of the earth above that hole it just sits dormant and not causing any problems. So what causes the soils to move downward? Gravity if course has an impact but water is the biggest driving force of soil movement. Water entering the ground surface can drag soil particles down and into voids bellow ground. Once this happens we see the true impact of sinkhole activity and the soils begins o move and ravel downward resulting in an impact at the surface.

Sep
2
2016

What is the best way to handle a claim denied for structural damage?

One of the most common questions we get is after someones claim has been denied based on a lack of structural damage how do we proceed for here. There are actually several different paths you could take that depend on the individual homeowners situation. One path is to request the carrier to do the additional sinkhole testing. Upside is it saves money and could give you an idea early on as to whether sinkhole activity is present or not. Plus if sinkhole activity is found to be present by the carriers own engineer that makes it a much tougher case for them to convince a jury to go their way. Downside is if the carrier enforces the statute it could cost the homeowner $2,500 to do the testing and remember that the carrier picks the engineer, not the homeowner.

A second path you could go down is simply evaluate whether the structural damage exists and out the issue of sinkhole activity on the back burner. In that case you would have a second structural engineer evaluate the home and if he or she has a a different opinion and finds that structural damage is present then you proceed with the lawsuit on just that issue. We file these lawsuits as declaratory judgment actions. In other words, you are asking to win a declaration that structural damage is present and that the carrier now has to come test your home for sinkhole activity. Upside is these cases are easier, cheaper and faster to litigate and if you lose you don’t have a finding of sinkhole activity to depreciate the value of your property or make finding new insurance impossible. Downside is even if you win this portion of the litigation you now have to wait for the insurance carrier to do the testing and they may just deny your claim a second time if they don’t believe sinkhole activity is present.

A third path is similar to the second path above where you hire a second structural engineer to evaluate whether structural damage exists or not. This time if the engineer says structural damage does exist you go and do the sinkhole testing on your own and if find sinkhole activity then you can submit the entire claim in one package to the carrier. Upside is you can have all the answers to the claim upfront and only have to pursue one lawsuit. The downside is if you lose that lawsuit your home is red flagged as a sinkhole home with no insurance money to help. Every case is different and we evaluate each clients situation and specific facts and goals to evaluate which path is best for you.

Jun
12
2016

We are moving

No great legal insight here, just a notice that we are moving our offices as of June 13th. We have purchased a building just for us and our growing law firm (now five lawyers). The new office address is 6812 W. Linebaugh Ave, Tampa, Florida 33625. Phone numbers and emails will all remain the same and of course the website and blog are still great ways to reach us. While you are at it, we revamped our webpage so go take a took at that too.

Jun
5
2016

What is surplus insurance?

Surplus lines insurance carriers and basically insurance companies that are willing to take on large and/or riskier properties. Because they do so, they typically don’t have to be qualified by the State and therefore don’t necessarily have to follow the same guidelines that your typical domestic, private insurance company does. Whether that is good or bad remains to be seen how the case goes but, it will be different. Most surplus carriers we have dealt with in the sinkhole arena have very odd (for lack of better term) language. Many have older, antiquated definitions of what sinkhole activity is that really no one else uses any more. Many of them offer “sinkhole collapse” coverage verse “sinkhole loss” coverage. These often come with arbitrary and again odd definitions of what is required to qualify as a collapse. Some even go as far as describing how big the hole has to be (5 feet by 5 feet for example). Many require that the collapse have occurred suddenly, within a short time frame to qualify. In other words, these coverages are very different than the typical slow reacting sinkhole activity below the ground that gradually causes cracking damage. These policies try to limit their coverage to when an actual hole opens up out of nowhere. Lastly, many of these policies contain the same antiquated and odd language when describing what the coverage actually pays for. Many of these policies say that they don’t “fill holes” or that they don’t insure the land and try to really limit what they have to pay for. How you can fix a true sinkhole collapse without filling a hole is beyond me plus there is much debate about the purpose of filling a hole or whether underpinning a building is the same as filling a hole. To make matters even more complex, if the insurance company investigates the sinkhole claim by the Florida Statutes they may waive their right to use their own policy language. Long story short, these can be really complex cases because of the ambiguous language and antiquated processes that these carriers use. You really got to know what you are doing to handle these cases and be prepared for several legal battles over the policy terms. I certainly understand that many people and business are forced to turn to these types of policies but if you don’t have to, I wouldn’t recommend it.