Recently, the law firm of Austin & Laurato has been involved in a number of appeals which have tremendously impacted the world of sinkhole litigation in a positive way for homeowners.
For a long time, insurance companies have been trying to put the burden on homeowners during litigation. However, in Mejia v. Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, the Second DCA found that, in fact, it is the insurance company who has to shoulder the burden of proof at trial.
Mr. Mejia filed a sinkhole claim with Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, who in turn denied coverage of his loss. Mr. Mejia brought a breach of contract suit against Citizens for failing to cover the claim. At trial, the judge assigned Mr. Mejia the burden of proving sinkhole loss during the policy period and the jury found that he did not meet this burden.
However, Mr. Mejia’s counsel appealed, arguing that he did not have the burden at trial, but rather, Citizens had to prove that the loss fell within an exclusion under the policy. The Second DCA found in favor of Mr. Mejia and reversed the trial court’s judgment. The appellate court granted Mr. Mejia a new trial so that the jury could properly be instructed on the burdens of proof.
The Second DCA also agreed with the assignment of the burdens of proof in the recent appeal brought by Citizens against Mr. and Mrs. Munoz. In Munoz, counsel from Austin & Laurato prevailed at the trial level and Citizens appealed based on the burden of proof. The district court of appeal again found for the homeowners and the Munozes won on appeal.
Austin & Laurato’s appellate counsel recently prevailed on another issue in sinkhole litigation—whether an insured must provide their engineering report before filing suit. In Mr. Oscar Diaz and Ms. Betzaida Martinez’s case, the Second DCA found that, contrary to their insurance company argued, there was no pre-suit production requirement and the insureds were free to file suit at any time after the breach. Once the insurance carrier breached the contract by denying coverage, Mr. Diaz and Ms. Martinez were free to file suit and seek recourse for their insurer’s incorrect denial.
Finally, Austin & Laurato was vindicated once more in appealing the case of Mr. and Mrs. Curtis and the summary judgment granted in favor of their insurer. Mr. and Mrs. Curtis first noticed damage to their home in September 2011. The Curtises reported the damage to Tower Hill Prime and Tower Hill undervalued their claim. Mr. and Mrs. Curtis then hired Austin & Laurato to bring a lawsuit against Tower Hill for breaching the insurance contract by failing to provide sufficient coverage for their loss. Although Tower Hill was able to use a technicality to get summary judgment early on, the Curtises appealed and the appellate court found in favor of the homeowner. The appellate court reversed the summary judgment, allowing the Curtises to proceed with their lawsuit.
This line of new precedent from the 2nd DCA is a victory for Florida homeowners and will strengthen homeowners’ ability to prevail at trial on a sinkhole claim.