Giving in to aggressive lobbying by Florida’s insurance companies, the Legislature amended Florida’s sinkhole law to require that that all sinkhole claims meet a techinical and complicated definition of structural damage before an insurer is required to provide coverage for sinkhole activity. For years, insurance companies were heard to complain that homeowners were being compensated for merely “hairline” cracks, which were only “cosmetic” in nature. In 2011, the insurance companies were successful in having the legislature write into law a provision which permitted the insurer to deny a sinkhole activity claim, regardless of how severe that sinkhole activity was below the home, if that sinkhole acitivty did not result in significant “structural damage” to the home. Many of Florida’s insurance companies, and particularly Citizens, immediately seized on this opportunity and began denying claims, asserting that, regardless of whether or not a sinkhole was present below the home, the home had not suffered “structural damage” as defined in the law. Daniel and Lorena Acosta’s home was one of those unfortunate cases.
In late 2012, Daniel and Lorena, a young couple living in the Lake Magdelene neighborhood of North Tampa, noticed a small tile crack that extended from their front door over the width of their home to the back lanai. Because both worked hard to immaculately maintain thier home and because there was a small child in the home, the Acostas notified Citizens and asked them to inspect the crack. Citizens inspected the home and thereafter denied the Acostas’ claim, asserting that while the home was damaged, the damage just wasn’t serious enough. Citizens bluntly denied the Acostas’ sinkhole claim, because it asserted that the floor-length tile crack was not “structural damage.”
The Acostas were referred to Austin & Laurato, P.A. through a friend, who had been successfully represented by the firm in another case. Firm Partner, Michael Laurato, visited the home, met with the Acostas, and took on the claim. After several years of litigation and no real settlement offers from Citizens, the firm was finally able to bring Citizens in front of a Hillsborough County jury. By that time, Citizens had switched its experts and brought in its highly-trained trial team of experts to testify. With its trial team in place, Citizens was confident in its “structural damage” defense and offered the Acostas nothing. On May, 26, 2015–the day after the Memorial Day holiday–the opening statements in the first ever “structure damage” sinkhole trial commenced. After a four day trial and closing statments, the case went to the jury, which returned a verdict resoluting rejecting Citizens’ “no structural damage” defense. The verdict awarded the Acostas $140,000.00.
The case was tried by firm lawyers: Michael Laurato and Erin Dunnavant.