West Central Florida residents, who reside in Florida’s infamous “sinkhole alley,” are well-aquanted with sinkhole losses. And so are the geologists, geotechnical engineers, other sinkhole professionals, and insurance companies that handle sinkhole claims day-in-and-day out throughout Central Florida. But, in South Florida, many Florida insurance companies, their lawyers, and the experts they regularly retain, believe that sinkhole activity, as statutorily defined, does not exist in South Florida.
In December of 2013, Austin & Laurato, P.A. together with Miami-Beach based co-counsel, Howard Levine, set out to prove the insurance companies wrong, when they tried the case of Secu v. Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company. The sinkhole claim was the first-ever denied sinkhole case tried in South Florida to a jury.
Because Austin & Laurato, P.A.’s lead trial lawyer, Michael Laurato, was required to be in trial in another action against Citizens Property Insurance Corporation for another client, firm associate lawyer, Erin Dunnavent, and Howard Levine tried the case in Broward County. Both Erin Dunnavent and Howard Levine have tried cases as second chair with Michael Laurato in both state and federal court, but this was the first opportunity for either lawyer to “sit first chair” in a sinkhole trial, sharing the primary responsibility for all the trial preparation and work in front of the jury.
Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company denied that the Secu’s cracking was caused by sinkhole activity. The company retained several professionals. all who concluded that sinkhole activity was not the cause of damage to the Secu residence. Because Universal’s experts were so resolute in their position that sinkhole activity could be eliminated to a scientific certainty, Austin & Laurato, P.A. and Howard Levine spent considerable time obtaining important information to rebut, undercut, and challenge Universal’s expert conclusions through the court’s discovery process. Universal fought the case all the way, rigorously litigating the case for over four years. In the process, Universal obtained several continuances of the trial in an effort to bolster its denial of the claim.
But, after a multi-day trial, Universal’s efforts were unavailing. Erin Dunnavent and Howard Levine were able to convince the Broward County jury that sinkhole activity was, in fact, a cause of damage to the Secu residence. The jury rejected Universal’s positions and awarded substantial monetary damages under the policy of insurance. The trial court has since entered final judgment against Universal. Universal has now filed a notice of appeal. Austin & Laurato’s lead appellate lawyer, Michael Laurato, along with the firm’s associate appellate lawyer, Laura Datz, have agreed to take on the appeal and defend the jury’s verdict.
“I am so proud of Erin and Howard for the all the hard work they put into this case,” said firm attorney, Michael Laurato. “I consider our group to be a team. I know that the team members look to me for guidance, because of the number of cases I have tried, but it is so gratifying for me to see two lawyers that I have had the pleasure of working with grow, themselves, into competent trial lawyers, capable of trying a case to a jury in their own right,” added Michael Laurato. Michael Laurato concluded that, “This case was both an acheivement and milestone for those lawyers personally and also for sinkhole law, generally. For them to win the first-ever denied sinkhole case in Broward is amazing, considering the insurance companies–for years–have taken the position that sinkholes don’t exist in South Florida. Of course, I am also thankful for the clients and greatful to the jurors for their understanding.”