By Michael V. Laurato, Esq.
Sinkholes occur in many parts of Florida due primarily to Florida’s limestone geology. Sinkholes are geologic features formed by the movement of rock or sediment into voids created by the dissolution of water-soluble rock, such as limestone. In Florida, there are several different types of sinkholes. Generally speaking, most of the sinkholes encountered in Florida do not manifest themselves on the surface of the land, such that they are recognizable to the layperson’s untrained eye. In other words, unless a homeowner has suffered what is known as a catastrophic cover collapse—the rarest type of sinkhole in Florida–, the homeowner may not even realize that their personal residence is being affected by sinkhole activity. After all, the term “sinkhole activity” refers to the systemic weakening of the earth supporting the property, when such weakening results from movement or raveling of soils into subterranean voids created by the effect of water on the limestone. Because, in geological terms, the “raveling of soils” and “systemic weakening of soils into subterranean voids,” necessarily occurs below the ground surface, much, if not all, of the processes that correspond to sinkhole activity occur outside of the parameters of normal human observation.
Under current Florida law, insurers must make available to policyholders, for an appropriate additional premium, sinkhole activity coverage for losses on any structure, which, of course, includes a home or personal residence. With that being said, the question becomes one of how does the homeowner recognize whether their home is being affected by sinkhole activity, if the sinkhole activity itself, may be below the surface? The answer is a relatively simple one.
While the sinkhole activity may be below the surface and, thus, out of the homeowner’s sight, other evidence of sinkhole activity is readily apparent to even the untrained eye. Although there is no comprehensive checklist to determine whether your home has been affected by sinkhole activity, the current law provides coverage for sinkhole activity that causes structural damage to the building. Thus, any visible structural damage to the home should be considered as a sign that the home is being affected by subsurface sinkhole activity. Common examples of structural damage caused by sinkhole activity include:
– “stair-step” cracking of blocks in the exterior walls of the home;
-windows and doors that do not open or function properly;
-cracks or separations on the interior of the home of the walls from the ceiling/floor;
-cracks in the home’s foundation, tile flooring, or interior surfaces;
-sudden collapse of drywall or ceilings.
In addition to the structural damage to the home itself, sinkhole activity may also cause other collateral consequences that a homeowner should be cognizant of. First, one of the most important factors pertaining to sinkhole formation in Florida is hydrology, that is, the properties, distribution, and effects of water. Accordingly, the death of vegetation, trees, or areas of the yard is may be a sign of sinkhole activity. Vegetation death in areas of the yard is a sign that vitally necessary water required to sustain plant life is possibly being whisked away into a subterranean void that is commonly associated with sinkhole activity. The sinkhole activity acts as a “drain” of sorts, sucking the water down through the ground by the simple force of gravity, before the water has an opportunity to enter the root system of the vegetation. Without water, of course, the vegetation wilts and, ultimately, dies. At first, homeowner’s may attempt to alternate or increase watering, replant the particular plant, re-sod that area of the yard, or substitute an different variety of plant, believing that either a lack of proper care or improper planting may have caused the death of the vegetation. In some instances, the new vegetation dies again, despite, and regardless of, the homeowner’s best efforts to sustain the new vegetation. With the death of vegetation, rarely does sinkhole activity come to mind, but it should be considered as one important factor in determining whether a particular home is being affected by sinkhole activity.
Another sign of sinkhole activity unconnected with structural damage is the presence of depressions on the property. Subtle circular depressions, even small ones, on the property may also be evidence of the “sagging” of soils into an active subterranean void in what is colloquially known as a “chimney” sink. Many times, homeowners come across these depressions, while mowing the yard, gardening, or other out-of-doors activities around the home.
If a homeowner believes that sinkhole activity is affecting their home, they should consult with a lawyer, who concentrates in the field of sinkhole law and who is experienced with the statutory definitions of sinkhole, catastrophic collapse, sinkhole activity, and sinkhole loss. Ultimately, determining whether a home is being affected by covered sinkhole activity is a complex, mixed question of law, science, and engineering. Because both the law and science involved in the sinkhole loss determination are highly nuanced, the homeowner should seek qualified legal and scientific opinions if there is any uncertainty as to whether a particular structure is being affected by sinkhole activity.