Residential Insurance Claims

The poor policyholders whose homes cracked, popped, and dipped as a result of sinkholes induced by citrus farmers spraying their crops to prevent freezing damage should be happy it happened to them this year. Newly proposed anti-consumer sinkhole legislation would limit policyholders to 25% of their coverage limits for the most common sinkhole problems.


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(Note: This Guest Blog is by Tina Nicholson, an attorney with Merlin Law Group in the Houston, Texas, office. This is part of a series she and fellow attorney Javier Delgado will be writing on Texas property insurance issues).

Everyone knows what to do when disaster looms. When the disaster is a hurricane, you gas up the car and buy batteries. When it’s a tornado, you get in the closet with a flashlight and a radio. When a winter storm approaches, you buy food and firewood.


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I just finished a two day settlement conference of a commercial insurance claim dispute held on the 51st floor of Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston. The view from the conference room was beautiful and in juxtaposition to the manner my client felt the insurance claim was handled. As is becoming customary for many of my cases, the terms of the settlement are confidential. The resolution ended very amicably, although the process was somewhat frustrating. The significant aspect to others is this was a matter whose facts are similar to, and seem repeated in, thousands of other Texas losses, no matter if the loss is small or a complex middle eight figure claim. Insurance claim denials and delays seem commonplace in Texas.


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The Florida legislature passed a law prohibiting Public Insurance Adjusters from soliciting business within 48 hours of a loss. Obviously, the lobbyists for the insurance industry were overjoyed with this law’s passage because it effectively allows the insurance companies and the insurance restoration industry to set the tone of the adjustment, without the typical policyholder having access to professional help.


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A former insurance defense attorney called me yesterday, asking if I would represent him and his wife in their sinkhole insurance dispute. While he oversaw many sinkhole matters from the insurance company’s position, I guess he knows that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. His call to me is part of a trend, sinkhole loss calls to our Tampa office have been on the rise. Last week, the St. Petersburg Times ran a front page lead article, Geologists Worry About Drought’s Effects on Sinkhole Season. The insurance coverage available, various statutory changes, caselaw, science, and repair of sinkhole losses make these cases fairly complex. Extreme rains or droughts seem to make sinkholes more frequent.


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One wrongful adjustment method that occurs from time to time is the practice of taking the deductible from the policy limit. For insurers, this is a way to never pay the policy limit. When this occurs, the underwriter essentially charges unearned premium for the amount of the deductible, and the policyholder never has a chance to fully recover under the policy. Sometimes the practice occurs out of ignorance. Some just take advantage of the unknowing policyholder.


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Texas insurance law has its quirks which are different than the majority. My experience is that every state has its nuances of insurance coverage law. Not necessarily wrong, just different. Sometimes, incorrect judicial decisions are made and then remain the law for generations. Often, adjusters in the field simply ignore statutes or common law rules and adjust claims the way they are taught.


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I was honored to be given the Policyholder Attorney Honorable Mention Award from the Insurance Law Center. It was meaningful because I am a policyholder attorney in every case. However, some who read the comment posted by the Insurance Law Center with the award might have the wrong impression about the success that our firm, not just me, had in the Katrina Cases we litigated. This is what was said:


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(Note:  This Guest Blog is by Frank Chimento, Director of Business Development and Client Services at Merlin Law Group).

I would feel confident making a wager that if Americans were polled on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least, their level of understanding or interest in insurance matters would be somewhere around 2.5. At least it was for me, until one day at the Almeda Mall in Houston, Texas.


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