State senator says proposal would aid homeowners filing Citizens sinkhole claims

But policyholder lawyers don't see a benefit

DUNEDIN, Fla. - It didn't come as a complete surprise to Michael Dupre when the ground swallowed his Dunedin home in November.

"We have a sinkhole that's being repaired, and it looks like our house is just going down," Dupre told an emergency dispatcher on the morning he reported the rapidly growing chasm in his backyard.

A contractor had just begun stabilizing the property after Dupre sued Citizens Property Insurance Corp. in May for taking too long to agree to a sinkhole fix.

The plight of homeowners such as Dupre has prompted a state senator from Pasco County to file legislation to change how Florida's home insurer of last resort handles sinkhole claims.

"The frustration is the killer here," said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. "You know, people have had policy claims for two and three years. And now they're in lawsuits for two and three years."

If Simpson's SB 416 is enacted in 2014, Citizens policyholders would be able to choose a stabilization contractor from a list of bonded companies pre-approved by the state-backed insurer. The senator hopes that will expedite sinkhole fixes while protecting homeowners from shoddy repair work.

"By doing a five-year warranty --- with a surety-rated company on the hook for the future repairs, if something goes wrong --- gives us a lot more comfort that these homes will be repaired correctly," Simpson told the ABC Action News I-Team.

Simpson's legislation shifts most of the responsibility for repairing a sinkhole properly from Citizens --- and the engineers who design the fix --- to the contractors on the insurer's pre-screened list. But that doesn't bother Earth Tech LLC President Ron Broadrick.

"We really support the bill," said Broadrick, who chairs the industry marketing committee of the Florida Association of Sinkhole Stabilization Specialists. "It's in everybody's best interest to have the best contractors who are going to stand behind their work, do a good job, and be there if there's ever a problem down the road."

In exchange for taking on the extra liability, established sinkhole repair outfits like Earth Tech could end up with less competition. After checking Florida's current roster of 82 sinkhole contractors for financial wherewithal, experience and the like, Citizens could whittle down the number of pre-approved repair companies to as few as a dozen, Broadrick predicts.

But Tampa attorney Aaron S. Kling, who has represented hundreds of homeowners in insurance disputes with Citizens, says Simpson's bill puts too much power in the hands of the state-backed insurer.

"I would characterize this as the most anti-consumer, anti-homeowner bill I have ever seen in my entire life," said Kling.

Letting one of Florida's biggest sinkhole insurers decide who is competent to do the fixes could pressure engineers and contractors to look for short cuts to save money, according to Kling and other lawyers who do legal battle with Citizens.

"If they start recommending underpinning on every case, then they won't be doing it for long," Kling said of what can be a costly sinkhole-repair technique. "We're talking about people that are paid millions of dollars from Citizens."

While homeowners may choose their own contractor from the Citizens list, Kling says the legislation limits their ability to dispute the repair method recommended by a Citizens-retained engineer.

"This bill is not in the best interest of anyone except Citizens Property Insurance Corp," said Kling.

Whatever Citizens did before the Dunedin sinkhole collapse proved too little, too late for Michael Dupre. With his house now leveled, Dupre tells the I-Team that he has no intention of dropping his lawsuit against the insurer.

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