FL consumer advocate weighs in on Polk sinkhole claim - WFLA News Channel 8

FL consumer advocate weighs in on Polk sinkhole claim

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A sinkhole claim by a Winter Haven family dealing with growing cracks in their home should get another look, a consumer advocate for the state of Florida said.

"I would venture to say they should relook at that claim, because it's clear that the damage is progressive," said Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Robin Westcott. "The continuous lines in the entire house where it cuts through rooms, shows that the damage is progressing for that home."

Westcott is appointed to her position by Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

After seeing the News Channel 8 story featuring the home and concerns by the family about the worsening damage, Westcott said she would encourage insurance company Universal Property Insurance "to go back out and look and see if they could establish the structural damage at this point."

Damage to the home is worrying Salia Whatley and her fiancé Eric Espinosa, who live there with Whatley's three children. The family has adjusted their routine to avoid the areas with the most damage, and fear the situation could get dangerous.

Universal Property and Casualty Insurance denied the sinkhole claim, saying there was no "structural damage" to the home. However, a company hired by Universal to do a geotechnical investigation on the site did report finding evidence of sinkhole activity on the property. Espinosa filed a civil lawsuit against Universal Property and Casualty Insurance that is ongoing.

Universal had not returned calls for comment on this case, but after News Channel 8 aired its initial story and sent a copy by email to the company president, along with word of the consumer advocate's comments, an attorney for the company said he would look at the case.

The claim denial comes under a revised Florida law that sets definitions for structural damage.

"These changes have helped reduce the number of claims where there was not a valid damage from a sinkhole," said State Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven), who supported the legislation, in an email. "This change will result in a more stable insurance market and help mitigate a cost driver for insurance premiums for all Floridians."

The 2011 law was designed to cut back on abuse of the insurance system, but some say it may hold other consequences for consumers, and leading to denied claims that end up in litigation.

"I do believe we're just beginning to see how (the legislation) is really going to affect a consumer," Westcott said.

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