Since 2004, the majority of our law firm’s large insurance battles have focused on hurricane loss insurance disputes. It is not surprising that we are getting phone calls from people asking whether our firm will open offices somewhere between North Carolina and Boston as Hurricane Earl is projected to hit that area. I was surprised by a recent newspaper article that indicated our firm “specializes” in sinkhole losses.

The Ocala Star Banner ran a story last week, “Insurers Say Sinkholes Impact Marion Market.” The introduction in the first paragraph of the following exerpt is an exaggeration of our practice:

William “Chip” Merlin, president of Tampa-based Merlin Law Group, which specializes in sinkhole claims, said population growth and development is more to blame for rising sinkhole claims.

“Number one is population growth,” Merlin said. “We’re seeing more structures in rural areas that are prone to sinkhole activity. Number two, we’re seeing more in farm areas because of irrigation. With more development we’re not going to see a decrease, we will continue to see an increase.

Another factor, Merlin said, is how difficult it is to deal with insurance companies when it comes to sinkhole claims. “Yes, we are seeing more claims,” Merlin said. “It’s much more difficult to collect payment so more people are going to attorneys.”

The Merlin Law Group does not specialize in sinkhole claims. We represent policyholders with insurance disputes. A small portion of those claims involve sinkhole claims. Since most of our practice involves disputes with property insurance at issue, we represent many policyholders with sinkhole claims. Indeed, as I wrote this, two attorneys in our firm are in the third day of trial regarding a sinkhole loss that the insurance company has denied.

Floridians have a much more difficult burden to prove and collect for their sinkhole damaged properties than in the past. Several changes to the statutory laws limiting how, what and when the insurance companies pay their customers for sinkhole losses have passed the Florida legislature. The insurance industry wants even more burdens and restrictions for policyholders, even limiting representation. To justify this, they have lobbied the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation to find “data” to limit policyholder choices and opportunities when faced with a sinkhole claim.

I am writing this while embroiled in a two day mediation for a large Texas school district involving a Hurricane Ike loss. Some may consider a school district with dedicated legal counsel, architects and building construction employees to be a sophisticated client. The truth is that if these policyholders are having trouble collecting and are having to retain professionals such as us, policyholders with sinkhole damage need professional help even more, given the current complex state of the law.

In the interim, Hurricane Earl has a windspeed map that must be concerning to those living on the Eastern seaboard.

If Earl wobbles just a little to the west, you don’t have to be a NASA rocket scientist to figure out somebody is going to be welcomed as a new member of the slabbed storm surge association.