If I file a claim, do I have to prove there is a sinkhole in my yard, or does the insurance company have to prove otherwise?
The Second District Court of Appeal (DCA) recently issued an opinion that held that the home insurance company bears the burden of proof in showing that property damage did not result from the presence of sinkholes. In Warfel v. Universal Insurance Co., the homeowner filed a sinkhole claim with his insurance company after noticing damage to the walls and floors in his home. The insurance company completed a geotechnical inspection pursuant to Florida Statutes §627.707 and found property damage was not the result of a sinkhole. As a result, the homeowner sued his insurance company.
Ruling Puts Burden of Proof for Sinkhole Damage on Homeowner
At trial, the homeowner’s insurance company asked the court to instruct the jury that section 90.304 and 627.7073(1)(c), Florida Statutes creates a rebuttable presumption in which the insurance company”s geotechnical report would be presumed correct, and in which the homeowner would be required to show that it was wrong. The insurance company presented expert evidence from the company that completed the geotechnical inspection, and the homeowner presented expert testimony that reviewed these findings but did not conduct his own investigation. Following the presentation of evidence, the trial judge instructed the jury that the homeowner had the burden of proving property damage resulted from a sinkhole, and the jury found in favor of the insurance company.
Appeal Rules Against Insurance Company
On appeal, the Court found that this instruction was improper because the statute did not demonstrate a clear legislative intent to require the homeowner to bear the burden of proof for sinkhole damage. The dissent pointed to other statutory schemes in which the legislature created rebuttable presumptions that shifted the burden of proof without expressly stating so.
Similarly, it found that section 627.707 of the Florida Statutes created uniform geotechnical investigation procedures so as to address the economic challenges of increased filing of sinkhole claims. According to the dissent, the majority approach is illogical because it allows the homeowner to overcome the presumption of correctness given to the insurance company’s geotechnical opinions by obtaining experts to review but not conduct their own independent investigation.
Benefit of Ruling to Homeowners
The holding in Warfel gives homeowners an advantage at trial in sinkhole-related suits. Judges are no longer allowed to instruct jurors as to the presumption of correctness for insurance companies geotechnical reports, even in light of a homeowner”s presentation of conflicting expert testimony.
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