September 2013

Citizens Property Insurance Corporation has been earning a reputation for systematically denying almost every insurance claim asserted by its policyholders.  Instead of honoring valid claims, Citizens spends millions of dollars each month “defending” claims – the same type of claims that other insurance companies would routinely pay without question.  Although those of us in the industry have been decrying Citizens’ business practices for years, last week the Tampa Bay Times finally posted an article pointing out Citizens’ track record of fighting valid insurance coverage claims and needlessly lining the pockets of law firms to “defend” against these claims.

Now, on the chance you might believe that Citizens’ policy of denying claims and raising meritless defenses is just urban legend, I offer the following examples of Citizens’ behavior from our recent experience:

Example A – Our client presented Citizens with a sinkhole damage claim, which Citizens summarily denied.  We provided Citizens with testing evidence which undeniably reflected sinkhole activity on our client’s property and also provided reports from neighbors on all three adjacent sides (left, right and behind) which had been confirmed for sinkhole activity.  Citizens’ response?  They offered $500.  They also promised that, once the policy holder ultimately won at trial (which they conceded would happen), Citizens would appeal the outcome (regardless of merit) in order to further drag out the process.

Example B – Citizens’ engineers actually confirmed sinkhole activity on the property of another one of our clients, but still – three years later – Citizens refuses to pay for the appropriate repair of the property.  Just yesterday, a large sinkhole actually opened up directly next to their house.  Our clients’ story even made the evening news last night.  Even so, Citizens refuses to provide coverage for the appropriate repair of the home.

Sadly, there is no one guarding the hen house at Citizens.  Outside vendors – mostly insurance defense law firms with the most to gain from Citizens’ stance on fighting claims – have convinced Citizens that the best way to handle claims is to fight tooth and nail on every issue, even when there is absolutely no chance of winning.  Obviously, the harder you fight payment on a given claim, the more money the insurance defense law firm can make billing Citizens for delaying/defending/denying the claim.

The other side of this coin is that, once the policy holder ultimately prevails on his claim, the insurance company is also responsible for the payment of the policyholder’s attorney’s fees and costs.  Accordingly, Citizens ultimate “reward” for denying valid claims is that the insurance company has to pay (1) the full amount of the repair costs, (2) pre-judgment interest on this amount, (3) the policyholder’s attorney’s fees and costs, and (4) Citizens’ own attorney’s fees and costs.  It doesn’t take a financial genius to see that it makes more sense to resolve a valid claim early in the process – and thereby avoid the payment of items (2) through (4) above – rather than needlessly waste money defending a claim which the insurance company will ultimately have to pay anyway.  But until there is a change of heart – or management – at Citizens Property Insurance, it may be best to retain qualified representation early in the insurance claim process.

Water DamageAlthough hurricanes, earthquakes, and sinkholes get the majority of the attention in the news, the vast majority of insurance claims deal with water damage to property.  These claims are generally broken into two categories – flood damage and water leak/seapage damage.  Flood claims revolve around damage caused by “rising water”, as opposed to other types of water losses which could come from leaky pipes, water blown through windows as the result of a storm, or overflow from appliances. 

With regard to the avoidance of damage caused by a flood – well, that’s between you and Mother Nature.  With regard to protecting your property from other types of water damage, you may find the following tips helpful: 

1.  Know the location of water valves.  Make sure everyone knows where the main valve is located and how to turn the water off.

2.  Monitor utility bills.  An unusually high water bill could signal a water leak.

3.  Turn off water before traveling.  Turn the water off at the main valve or directly on major appliances. Consider leaving a house key and contact information with a neighbor or trusted friend and ask the person to check the inside and outside of your home periodically while you are away

4.  Inspect your home regularly for signs and sources of moisture.   After a storm or rain shower, check for water stains or odors inside your house.  Create a maintenance schedule to check the following sources of water leaks on a regular basis:

Hot water heaters – Hot water heaters may rust or develop cracks over time. Check your water heater for rust and deterioration every year. Check the drain pan for water and ensure that the drain line for the overflow pan is not clogged. Drain and clean the water heater as recommended by the manufacturer.

Garbage disposal – Routinely check for cracks or other sources of leaks.

A/C drain lines – Damage can occur when the line that drains condensation from the evaporator coils becomes clogged and water overflows from the drip pan. Periodically check the drip pan for water and consider an annual service call to reduce the buildup of algae and mold in the drain line.

Indoor and outdoor pipes and faucets – Routinely check indoor pipes under cabinets and sinks for leaks, rust, and any signs of deterioration. Minimize the potential for water damage from frozen and broken outdoor pipes by insulating supply lines (in attics, crawlspaces, and exterior walls), protecting exposed outdoor faucets, sealing gaps in exterior walls, and maintaining adequate heat in your home.

Appliance hoses – Broken hoses are among the most common causes of water damage. Regularly inspect hoses and hose fittings on washing machines, icemakers, and dishwashers for kinks, cracks, bulges, or deterioration. Replace standard rubber washing machine hoses every two to five years or more often if they are showing signs of wear. Consider using steel-reinforced hoses for longer life.

Showers, tubs, sinks, toilets, windows, and doors – Water leaks around bathtubs, showers, sinks, and toilets can cause damage because the leak is often out of sight. To prevent leaks, make sure you have a watertight seal of caulk around tubs, sinks, toilets, tubs, shower stalls, windows, and doors. Cracks or mold on caulk or tile grout may indicate that you do not have a watertight seal. Remove all caulk or grout, clean and dry the surface thoroughly, and apply fresh caulk. Do not apply new caulk or grout on top of the old materials.

Attics and ceilings – Routinely check for wet insulation and water stains.

Wallpaper – Routinely check for bubbling, peeling, and stains.

Roofs – Keep roofs free of debris that can damage roofing and allow water to seep in. Trim tree branches to prevent them from rubbing and damaging the roof.

Repair missing or damaged shingles – Properly seal any cracks around chimneys, skylights, and vents. Check metal flashing for holes, cracks, or other damage. Replace flashing or use silicone caulk to seal any openings.

Rain gutters and downspouts – Direct rainwater away from your home. Keep gutters clear and make sure downspouts are long enough to carry water away from your foundation. Gutters that are filled with leaves and other debris allow water to back up on the roof, which can result in water damage to eaves and roofing material.

Sump pumps – Sump pumps are the first line of defense in preventing water from seeping into basements. Periodically check the sump and remove any debris that could clog the pump. Consider installing a battery-powered backup to protect your basement during power outages.

Landscape – Yards should slope away from the house to prevent puddling near the foundation or under pier and beam houses. Do not allow sprinklers or sprinkler heads to soak the exterior of your house.

Trust me – with regard to water damage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  A few years ago, we had a water leak at our house that resulted in our being out of the home for over 77 nights!  One tiny valve behind a toilet in my daughter’s bathroom broke free while we were on vacation and the resultant leak destroyed the hardwood flooring throughout our entire house and even seeped up the walls for approximately three feet!  Even with the best preparations, accidents may be unavoidable.  Therefore, it is vitally important that you verify that you have sufficient coverage on your homeowner’s insurance policy to protect you from water damage.  If you have any questions regarding your insurance policy or what coverages it may provide, you should contact an insurance claim lawyer to examine your policy and explain what benefits your policy may provide for this type of loss.

Pursuant to a new Federal law, premiums for residential flood insurance in Florida may soon be as high as $24,000 a year.  A new law, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, was enacted by Congress in 2012 as a knee jerk reaction to the recent large scale disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.  Proponents of the new law stated that the passage of this law was necessary in order to make the federal flood insurance “fiscally sound”. 

People who bought homes in high-risk areas after the law was passed in July 2012 may have received the same flood insurance rates as the previous owners.  When these new owners renew their flood insurance policies, they will be required to get an elevation certificate – which will most likely cause the amount they pay for flood insurance to explode.  Much of the potential rate increase will be tied to the height of the home’s foundation as opposed to the base flood level.  It is speculated that a home at 3 feet below the base flood elevation may see rates increase to approximately $6,500 per year, and a home at 6 feet below the base flood elevation level may see a rate of $15,000 per year.  Oh – and remember that coverage limits for federal flood insurance is capped at $250,000 – regardless of the value of your home.

An article in the St. Pete Times today pointed out two specific examples of how this new law will affect Pinellas County residents.  In one example, a home was built in 1960 and was purchased in March of this year for $148,000.  Since this home is 7 feet below the base elevation, its annual flood insurance premium will soon be $22,400.  Another example was a 1956 home which is 8 feet below the base flood level.  This homeowner now pays $1,960 for his flood insurance, but next year his premium will be $29,100.  As a general rule, current property owners in the “A” flood zone who are now paying approximately $2,000 a year for flood insurance will see their premiums jump 25% in October of this year, and these premiums will continue to rise over the next eight years to approximately $11,000 per year.

Clearly, the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act will be catestrophic to the real estate market in Florida and beyond.  As for prospective purchasers of waterfront property in Florida, make sure you know what you are getting into as it appears that the days of affordable flood insurance are in the rear view mirror.