Tag Archives: Florida Sinkholes

When Expansive Clay Soil Damage Constitutes a Sinkhole Claim

Are there common causes of settlement damage?

During most sinkhole investigations, engineering firms examine the deeper soils as well as the soil material in the shallow areas near the home. Sinkhole activity requires deeper borings, to depths as deep as 100 feet below the surface. The limestone is the primary area of concern, with an examination as to whether the rock is dissolving. At the same time the limestone is being examined, most engineering firms will also do shallow borings, called hand augers, to extract the surface materials for expansive clays or organic material. (Read more about what constitutes a sinkhole.)

Things to Keep in Mind if Expansive Clay Soil Is Found

The issue of expansive clay soils, or “shrink swell” clays is a common distraction for deciding whether a home is being impacted by sinkhole activity. If you or someone you know has been told there is no sinkhole activity and the damage is being caused by expansive clay, here are the most important things to keep in mind:

    1. Even if expansive clay soil was found at the site, this does not mean the home is not being impacted by sinkholes. This is complicated, but it is associated with the manner in which expansive clay and sinkholes are formed.
  1. Many sinkhole investigations are “denied” claims more because they are incomplete, not because they necessarily excluded sinkhole. Thus, while the sinkhole investigation may not be complete, the presence of expansive clay soil often results in a denial of the claim simply because they found clay near the surface.
  2. Lastly, for expansive clay to be the cause of the damage, several things have to be true:
  • It has to be of a particular kind.
  • It must be at a particular depth.
  • It must be of a sufficient percentage of the soil to actually impact the movement of the home.

Suffice to say, we read a lot of engineering reports where the insurance dispute can be found quickly. If we see something we do not fully understand on technical matters such as this litmus test applied to the presence of expansive clay soils, then we can find an appropriate professional who can assist our clients.

Have a burning question you’d like to ask about sinkholes? Let us know.

Sinkhole Investigations and New Home Construction

I’m in the process of closing on a lot that we intend to build our dream home on. What can we do before construction to make sure we don’t have a sinkhole problem?

I speak personally to this issue. I signed a contract for a new home to be built. We asked to conduct testing on the lot before we closed, and were denied this right until we closed on the lot, but before we began the actual construction. Two weeks later, after to Standard Penetration Tests, we found patent evidence of sinkhole activity. We worked it out with the contractor, who permitted us to cancel the agreement with them.

Conducting sinkhole investigations is costly, but it may be more costly not to. Consider this: Doing two standard penetration tests cost us $3,000, but that money was well spent because it saved us a great deal of money in the long run. If you are interested in conducting a sinkhole investigation, you need to have the testing done prior to the pouring of the foundation. The important thing would be to look at the footprint of the house and test in that area. If you provide the engineering firm the building plans, they will be able to recommend the testing locations.

Also, do your own sinkhole investigation of your adjacent property owners. Ask them if they have had any problems with settlement or if they have ever filed insurance claims. While this may be a bit forward on your part, people will often share their experiences, especially because it will often include complaints about problems with insurance companies.

Lastly, you will want your engineering firm to also conduct some shallow soil work, in the form of hand augers to a depth of about eight feet. This is because you will want to determine if you have any other, soil-related problems, as well as sinkholes. Problems with excessive organic material, expansive clay, or poorly consolidated sand can also cause significant problems for you.

As always, if you have any problems locating an appropriate engineering firm, we can offer you several options. Good luck.

Read our tips on filing a sinkhole claim.

Have a burning question you’d like to ask about sinkholes? Let us know.

Tips on Filing a Sinkhole Claim

Do you have any tips on filing sinkhole claims? Any mistakes I should be sure to avoid?

Once you decide to file a sinkhole insurance claim for sinkhole damage, it is very much you against the insurance company. Most of our clients, regardless of whether they are in Ocala or Spring Hill, tell us that they feel an adverse relationship with their insurance company right out of the gate. Unlike water claims or even small fires, confirmed sinkhole activity can cause considerable damage and require the active participation of your insurance company.

Some carriers, like anything else, take better care of their insureds than others. Regardless, there are important tips to consider in filing sinkhole insurance claims like this:

Consider the Safety of Your Family

If the damage to the home is considerable, notify your insurance company that you wish to be moved to another location while the testing requisite to sinkhole insurance claims is pending. In most cases, this is not usually required. While damage can appear rapidly, like it did recently in Hudson, Florida, most sinkhole damage or sinkhole activity does not cause noticeable damage to the home.

Make Sure That All Communication with Your Insurance Company Is in Writing

When we counsel clients who are awaiting sinkhole insurance claim decisions, we confirm everything in writing. The insurance company is noting everything you say, and will likely be asking to record portions of your personal statement. As such, you should confirm everything they tell you as well.

For example, in a recent sinkhole insurance claim in Ocala, we had an insured who could not get the insurance company to conduct an investigation in a timely manner. The insured told us she had been told the investigation would start within a week. The insurance company, however, told us they had told her it would be at least 6 to 8 weeks. At the time they told her it would be a week, confirming it in writing would have made the investigation occur much faster. A lot of times, we serve this role as we act as the voice of the insured, trying to get the claim resolved as quickly as possible.

Read my considerations you should weigh before filing a sinkhole claim.

Have a burning question you’d like to ask about sinkholes? Let us know.

Sinkhole Repairs for Other Structures on Property

Other than the property coverage provided for under my insurance policy, does my insurance policy cover sinkhole repairs for other things, such as my driveway and other parts of my home?

Quite frequently sinkhole damage can occur to areas of an insured property that are separate and apart from the dwelling residence. Depending on your policy, there may be coverage for additional structures on the property. Typically, this would potentially include a guesthouse, driveway or other permanent improvement to the land.

In our experience, insurance companies will sometimes attempt to include the sinkhole repairs to damages for additional insured structures under the coverage for the main dwelling residence. This unfairly deprives the insured of other available coverage, which is separate from the insurance for the dwelling on the insured property.

For instance, an engineer hired by the insurance company confirmed sinkhole activity affecting the property and prepared a  sinkhole repair plan calling for grout to be injected under several points under the driveway. This grouting, by necessity, involved the separately insured other structure (the driveway), yet the insurance company failed to apply the other available coverage to this portion of the sinkhole repair. Instead, the insurer unfairly attempted to “lump” this segment of the sinkhole repair under the coverage for the main dwelling.

We provide analysis and answers to our insured clients about this and many other types of insurance policy questions.

Read our tips on filling out a sinkhole claim.

Have a burning question you”‘d like to ask about sinkholes? Let us know.

Your Duties in a Sinkhole Claim Investigation

After I filed my sinkhole claim, the company contacted me and asked that I participate in an “examination under oath”? What is this, and am I required to do so?

Nearly every insurance policy has contractual language that requires the insured homeowner to cooperate during the investigation of a sinkhole claim by the insurance company. At times, an insurance company may request their insured to submit documentation and to provide a statement under oath concerning the facts of the claim.

Although this type of request during the initial investigation of a sinkhole claim is uncommon, when such a request is made, you must cooperate with the insurance company. This duty to cooperate includes providing sworn statements (an examination under oath) as well as responses to reasonable requests for documents.

Sometimes this type of investigation is premised on the theory that there was a prior sinkhole claim or that there is factual information necessary that the insurance company does not have in their possession. Regardless of why the insurance company makes these requests to substantiate your sinkhole claim, you ordinarily need to fully cooperate to the best of your ability. We have appeared at countless examinations under oath, and we know what to expect. Please contact us to discuss your legal options and to how to best protect your rights under the insurance contract and Florida law.

Read our tips on filling out a sinkhole claim.

Have a burning question you’d like to ask about sinkholes? Let us know.

The Effect of Past Sinkhole Claims on a Current Sinkhole Claim

Question: After I discovered damage to my home that I thought might be sinkhole related, I found out my house had confirmed sinkhole activity before I bought it. Does this impact my sinkhole claim?

What to know about past sinkholes on your new home

If a property previously experienced sinkhole activity or was involved in a sinkhole claim, the insurance company will attempt to defend the new claim by alleging the damage is all pre-existing or was related to the past claim. A seller of property in Florida who made a prior sinkhole claim or received any settlement proceeds for a sinkhole claim will need to fully disclose the relevant details of the claim to the purchaser of such property. This would include:

  • A description of the magnitude of the sinkhole damages
  • The extent of any repairs completed at the property
  • The amount of the sinkhole claim settlement proceeds that were utilized for any repairs

An insurance company will want to know the information concerning the past sinkhole claim and if the dwelling demonstrates new evidence of continued progression of damage due to the past failed repair attempt. Having the details of any past sinkhole claim is critical to pursuing any renewed or new claim by the insured homeowner.

As long as the insured honestly puts forth all noteworthy facts to his/her home insurance company and discloses all material information about the history of the home, there should be little reason for an insurance company to not perform a fair investigation into the sinkhole claim.

Because of our experience working for the insurance carriers, we are familiar with certain tactics frequently employed by the insurance companies in fighting sinkhole claims, and we know what to expect.

Please contact us to discuss your legal options and to how to best protect your rights under the insurance contract and Florida law.

Plant City Sinkhole Debate Rages On

The Plant City sinkhole debate

In a story we have been following and actively involved in for about a year now, the Plant City sinkhole debate rages on. To recap the previous controversy, over a hundred sinkholes appeared during a very short period of time over the winter this year. The numbers in the article state that 140 sinkholes appeared and about 760 wells were dried.

The cause of the sinkhole activity has been linked to the local farmers who in fear of a freeze, pumped water constantly on the crop to avoid losing their livelihood. Recently Swiftmud (Southwest Florida Water Management District) has traced approximately 85% of the water consumption to one particular farm.

How to fix the problem

Since the sinkhole infestation, a debate has raged on about how we can avoid this problem in the future. The crux at the center of the debate is simple: do we hurt the farmers or homeowners?

A large group has backed legislation that would place a cap on how much water farmers could pump, in theory leaving the local aquifers full and not activating sinkhole conditions. The corresponding problem is of course that the farmers will be at risk during freezes without the ability to protect their crops with 24-hour pumping. As grower Carl Grooms stated recently at a hearing, “berry farmers built this town”.

When decisions will be made

Another public meeting is scheduled for September 28th but still will not be prepared for a vote yet. It seems this legislation may take some time to draft and is unlikely to have any impact for the winter of 2011.

What do you think?  If you have a situation requiring legal representation for a sinkhole damage claim, contact Morgan Barfield at Barfield Law Group, 813-251-1285.

Partial Underpinning Dangerous Approach to Fixing a Sinkhole

Is partial underpinning an adequate approach to fixing sinkhole damage?

Other than denied claims for sinkhole damage (or “sink hole” depending on whom you ask), the most common question relates to how one fixes a sinkhole, whether it be in the yard or beneath the home.

When a sinkhole is fixed by partial underpinning

We spent the better part of a day this week on a case I believe worth writing about. A homeowner we represent in Ocala had a sinkhole “fixed” previously, by the use of grouting and underpinning. However, only part of the perimeter of the home was actually stabilized with underpinning.

Instead of underpinning the entire home, the insurance company’s engineer firm had instructed the insurance company to only authorize the use of six pins, to stabilize one-fourth of the home, where the damage was the worst.

Why partial underpinning doesn’t work

The easiest way to describe this cheaper approach to fixing a sinkhole would be to consider the structure of a dining room table. A table has four legs and a tabletop. The tabletop rests on the four legs, with the weight distributed evenly down the legs. If one of the legs is too short, the table will wobble. If one of the legs is missing then the table will likely fall.

The same principle applies to how to fix a sinkhole. The reason you use underpinning is that you are taking the weight of the home and removing the weight from the surface to a deeper area where the soil is stable. If you only pin portions of the home, you are now altering the weight of the home, with portions of it on the surface and the other weight being moved to the deeper soil material.

The problem is that now you have a two- or three-legged table, with areas moving, and others not. This tends to torque the house and cause other damage.

What engineers believe

We consulted multiple engineering firms – even some who work for insurance companies – and they all agreed that partial pinning was not the best approach to fixing this sinkhole. We presented these opinions to the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation representatives and hoped they listen.

Ocala Sinkhole Swarm

Sinkholes in Ocala

In a turn of events that is almost reminiscent of Plant City sinkholes earlier this year, Ocala is seemingly under attack by sinkhole activity. Again and again, we have talked about the huge breadth of the sinkhole activity in Ocala and now we can see it at the surface.

The most publicized sinkhole is near the Fore Ranch area and began as a 28-foot wide monster and now has grown to a 50-foot behemoth! Apparently, this one is not alone as there have been at least three other cover-collapse sinkholes develop in the Ocala area in just a matter of days. City officials blame the heavy rains for the collapses and note that the water level in adjacent retention ponds has dropped six feet since the collapse.

Who has to foot the bill?

Fore Ranch will likely have to pitch in on the repair bill. Luckily, at this point, no homes appear to be in danger but roads have been closed causing hassles and headaches for those in the area.

The city has apparently hired Geotech to perform an investigation and begin repairs. We are familiar with Geotech and are a very capable company that should do a good job taking care of this problem.

How sinkholes affect the area

The long term question is what effect will this have on the homes and businesses in the area. That remains to be seen but nearby residents should surely keep a vigilant watch and report any signs of movement immediately.

On a side note, a former client of ours who recently resolved a sinkhole claim on his house in Ocala just moved to this area to get away from sinkhole problems.

Material Misrepresentation in Insurance

What is material misrepresentation in insurance?

When filing an insurance claim, it might be a shock to be informed that your insurance company is attempting to assert a material misrepresentation defense against you, instead of interviewing you about your claim. So what is material misrepresentation in insurance? Should you be concerned?

When your claim can be canceled

In the state of Florida, an insurance company may rescind (or cancel as though it never existed) your insurance policy if they determine you have mispresented the underlying facts of your home and its history. If your insurance company believes that you withheld facts from them that would either cause them to deny your policy or charge you a higher premium, they can state they are not obligated to cover your claim or even your policy.

While this is a scary thought, keep in mind that while they may feel this is within the realm of possibilities, they must prove that you purposefully lied to them, and this is very difficult. This is because they must prove that you specifically told them something in your description of your home that was untrue.

What qualifies as lying?

This is where you’re likely in luck. As aforementioned, they must prove that you reported something that was untrue. Therefore, if your home had prior sinkhole damage but you didn’t know, you cannot be held liable for this information.

Second, you cannot be held liable for information that the insurance company did not ask for. If, for example, you were aware of a sinkhole that had opened next door to the house, but the insurance company never asked if there was a sinkhole next door, you cannot be held responsible for the insurance company’s negligence. It was their duty to get a well-rounded picture of your home, not yours!

Third, only information that has been confirmed and stated can be used against you. For example, if someone advised that “you better have that checked out” in reference to a crack in the foundation, it does not state that there are any issues with the foundation, nor any history of issues. There is no reason to expect a layperson to understand what a crack in the foundation might mean so it cannot be assumed that you withheld information.

Your home’s background is the insurance company’s responsibility

The basic idea is that material misrepresentation in insurance cannot be claimed about information that your insurance company did not directly ask you for. As long as you answered all the questions that were presented to you to the best of your ability, you have no reason to be concerned about your claim or policy being canceled.

While insurance applications tend to be ambiguous and poorly written, it must be proved that you outright lied in order to confirm material misrepresentation, and this is very difficult to do.

Once they press you for whether or not you told them any particular facts about the home, questions like the following arise:

  • Did they inspect the home?
  • Was the appearance of the damage normal for homes of its age?
  • Did you buy the home for a reasonable value?

If you bought the house at its actual market value and later it is determined the damage was sinkhole related, who would believe you would do this intentionally?