TAMPA - In the last five years, the number of sinkhole claims in Florida has jumped from 2,000 to 6,000, according to a 2010 report from the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.
Some experts say loopholes allow some to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from insurance companies. Experts say it’s perfectly legal, and you end up paying for it.
The I-Team has gone through hundreds of sinkhole claims as part of a 3-month investigation.
Insurance rates are out of control. Soon, customers will be paying hundreds more. At a September public meeting to discuss rate hikes, angry customers said they were fed up.
“We will have to default on our mortgage. We’ll have no other choice,” said one customer.
When insurance companies like state-run Citizens Insurance reach into your wallet, they say they have no choice, because they lost $220 million dollars last year paying costly sinkhole claims.
In Pasco County, hundreds of homeowners are struggling to get their sinkhole damage fixed. Billboards for sinkhole lawyers and repairs are everywhere.
But when the I-Team visited one New Port Richey home where a sinkhole claim was approved, the renter said he believed there wasn’t a sinkhole there.
“Are there sinkhole problems at this home?” asked I-Team investigator Michael George.
“Not that I’m aware of. There’s not one crack anywhere inside this home,” said renter Brad Hartman.
Hartman rents the home from realtor Calvin Kemp. County records show Kemp has filed 12 sinkhole claims at 12 different homes that he owns. We have created a map of Kemp’s sinkhole homes , located all over Pasco County.
After inspections by engineers, four of his claims were rejected. Kemp is now suing State Farm because they won’t pay for repairs.
Hartman, Kemp’s tenant, admits he has had disputes with Calvin Kemp and he is moving out. But he believes there is no sinkhole at the home.
“There isn’t cracks on the outside walls. Maybe stucco cracks, but no step cracking, or anything like that, nothing,” Hartman said.
The I-Team spoke to residents in several of the neighborhoods where Kemp has filed sinkhole claims. Some were surprised to hear that someone had filed a sinkhole claim.
“Have you had any issues with sinkholes?” asked Michael George.
“No, I haven’t. Never had an issue,” said neighbor Tom Cameron.
“We haven’t had any problems that we know are related to sinkholes,” said neighbor Kendra Tsongranis.
Some of Kemp’s tenants and neighbors, however, said the sinkhole problems are real.
“I notice a lot of cracking in the house. I strongly think that it’s probably sinkhole-related,” said neighbor Anna Salgat.
We showed Kemp’s claims to Tom Diana, president of Critical Claims Consulting. The company advises insurance companies and lawyers on sinkhole claims. Diana said at least some of the 12 claims don’t appear to be sinkholes.
County records don’t show how much Kemp received from the insurance companies. The average payout for a sinkhole claim is $140,094, according to the 2010 Florida Office of Insurance Regulation report. Kemp has already had 4 successful claims.
“Does anybody check to see how the money is being used?” asked George.
“Not currently, no,” said Diana.
When insurance companies make big payouts like this, fair or not, they pass the cost on to you. I asked Diana if anything Kemp is doing is illegal.
“It’s perfectly legal, and I refer to it as opportunism. The laws were written in a way that coverage was to be expanded to the tune of $1 billion dollars annually. It’s a huge, huge industry,” Diana said.
Kemp has declined requests to be interviewed on camera. His lawyer said they can’t comment because of the ongoing lawsuit against State Farm.
Even for experts, it’s tough to say what damage was or was not caused by a sinkhole. What is clear is that cases like Kemp’s are being used by insurance companies to justify the rising rates for sinkhole coverage.
You can also reach the I-Team by e-mail at email@example.com.
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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