If you’ve filed an insurance claim for sinkhole related damage in the past few years in Florida, you’ve most likely seen the term “neutral evaluation” in various correspondence or heard the term mentioned by an insurance adjuster. A few years ago, the Florida Legislature enacted a law whereby if there is a disagreement as to whether sinkhole activity is present on the property or as to the appropriate method to repair the damage, either party to the claim can elect to submit the claim to the neutral evaluation process. During the neutral evaluation process, a third-party expert chosen from a list maintained by the Department of Financial Services reviews all the investigative reports, inspects the property, and then renders a non-binding “third-party” opinion as to the issue in dispute. Although the report issued by the neutral evaluator is non-binding, the law states that his report is automatically admissible in any legal proceeding relating to the claim.
Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Perhaps not. Exactly what standard does a neutral evaluator have meet in order to be considered “neutral”? When the neutral evaluation process first began, the Florida Legislature (or perhaps, the insurance company lobbyists?) set forth that an expert would be deemed “neutral” if that expert received 90% or less of their income from insurance companies. So, in light of this definition, an expert who received 89% of his livelihood from an insurance company would not be seen as being biased in favor of insurance companies. Hmm – how odd.
Recently, the insurance company lobbyists – er, I mean, the Florida Legislature – further refined the definition as to what would be deemed “neutral”. Currently, the only “neutral” qualification they must meet is that the expert be, “determined by the department (of financial services) to be impartial”. Apparently, the Legislature believed that the 90% cut-off requirement was too restrictive and that experts who received in excess of 90% of their income from insurance companies should still be considered “neutral” for this process. Who are we to question that logic!
Clearly, the use of the word “neutral” in the neutral evaluation process is subject to scrutiny. Although this process may have been sold to the general public as a way to have sinkhole claim disputes resolved by an “impartial” third party, the reality may be that the “independent” expert may be very beholden to the insurance industry.