By Mary Ellen Klas
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
To Fred and Emilie Moutran, there's no dispute that the cracks in the walls of their Spring Hill home were caused by the shifting ground of a sinkhole deep below the surface. The floor under the chimney has dropped 3 inches. A gash runs across their mantel. A crack extends the length of a hallway, and the ceiling over the garage has shifted so much that the Moutrans fear it will collapse.
"We hear cracking and popping at night, sometimes all night long, and we're starting to get very concerned," said Fred Moutran, 31, who lives in the home with his 64-year-old mother, Emilie.
After two engineering firms concluded the damage was caused by sinkhole activity, the job of repairing their home and stabilizing the ground fell to Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run company. For three years, the family has been trying to get Citizens to make the repairs. But the insurance company has sent them a check for $21,000 to cover cosmetic repairs, not the fixes to the foundation that will shore up their home.
"They want to force us to make the repairs their way," the son said. "We paid for a service, with the understanding it would be there when needed, not three years later."
The Moutrans aren't the only family accusing Citizens of denying repairs and delaying their case. An estimated 1,800 homeowners have filed lawsuits against the company challenging their sinkhole claims. Citizens acknowledges that most of the disputes involve disagreements over the method of repair.
Citizens has agreed to pay for additional repairs at the Moutrans' home, for example, but at a price the family considers "grossly inadequate" because it would leave them with a house that will continue to deteriorate. But they know the delay is risky.
The Moutrans watched in horror as a Dunedin family lost its home just weeks ago after a dispute with Citizens over the method to use for repairing their home. That family finally agreed to allow Citizens to dictate the terms of the foundation repair. But two days into the project, the home collapsed into an 80-foot hole.
Michael Peltier, Citizens' spokesman, said that when there is a dispute over how to make the repairs, the company hires an engineer "who has made estimates on what it will cost to repair, but sometimes homeowners will find their own engineer who may have a difference of opinion. That seems to be where most of the legal challenges and litigation arise from."
Last month, Citizens proposed a controversial repair program that would remove homeowners from the repair equation and steer money directly to vendors.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, filed legislation that would create a similar program. Under the proposals, repairs must be completed by contractors approved by Citizens and homeowners would not be allowed to be paid for the repairs. Contractors would also be required to finish the repairs at fixed prices, regardless of the damage cost, and insurers would have to offer multiple levels of deductibles and explain excluded coverage.
To the lawyers and consumer advocates representing homeowners against Citizens, these proposals create an inflexible system that attempts to limit the insurance company's liability at the expense of homeowners.
"This has the potential to affect everybody in Florida because this is a practice run," said Dan Fritz, general counsel at Sinkhole Public Adjusting LLC in New Port Richey. "If a hurricane hits and they can get an enforced repair program in place, they can contract with vendors at a cut rate. That would not be in the best interest of consumers."
John Thompson, a Brooksville resident who fought Citizens over the repairs to his own home four years ago, worries that forcing families to sign a contract for repairs using their methods gives contractors the incentive to skimp on a job in order to make a profit.
"I would never pick a company that's on a preferred vendor list," he said. "Whose interests are they looking out for?"
Legislators have been trying to tamp down Citizens' sinkhole liability in recent years as costs have continued to soar beyond what the company receives in revenue.
In 2011, lawmakers passed SB 408. It allowed Citizens to charge customers extra for sinkhole coverage, uncapped rates for sinkhole premiums, and removed noncatastrophic sinkhole losses from its basic homeowners' insurance policies. In the first year of the program, sinkhole claims dropped nearly 60 percent. But, in 2012, the company paid out $169 million more in sinkhole claims than it earned in sinkhole premiums.
The Moutrans are like thousands of homeowners who live in a region known as "Sinkhole Alley" in the Tampa Bay area. Geologists say that sinkholes are common in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco because the limestone bed, which is close to the surface, can dissolve and collapse over time.
There are few solutions to the problem, but the most common method of repair recommended by engineers is "compaction grouting." That involves injecting pressurized concrete into the ground around and below a home. The concrete is intended to fill potential voids and cracks and stabilize loose soil. In theory, the concrete hardens over time, preventing the home from sinking further.
But the process is far from perfect. There is no telling where the concrete actually goes when it's injected into the ground, and engineers even warn that it can sometimes make things worse, such as when it sinks into the aquifer.
Thompson, who has started his own consumer advocacy group, Good Foundation Florida, watched that happen to a neighbor's home. As pressurized concrete was being poured under his house, it rose from the ground blocks away, he said.
Many homeowners want Citizens to also pay for a process known as underpinning, essentially driving steel piers into the dense and load-bearing limestone, like putting a beach house on stilts. Citizens' engineers often resist that approach, which is often less costly, arguing that the underpinnings alone don't keep the soil in place.
Homeowners have the option of calling on a neutral third party to assess the claim any time during the dispute, but the recommendations are not binding.
The Moutrans hired a neutral evaluator, who recommended the foundation be fixed at a cost that exceeded the policy limits by $30,000. State law requires that an insurer provide the appropriate repairs even if they exceed the policy. But, in the Moutrans' case, Citizens refused to accept the recommendation.
Thompson thinks the disputes have emerged because, before 2011 legislation, some homeowners were paid for sinkhole claims but didn't use the money to fix their house. Now, legislators, Gov. Rick Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and top officials at Citizens have concluded that homeowners who file a sinkhole claim are presumed to have fraudulent intent unless proved otherwise, he said.
"I concede some of these claims shouldn't have been paid in the past, but they're trying to compensate now for the mistakes of the past, and that's hurting people," Thompson said.
The Moutran family is caught in that trap, he said. "It's the classic case of not doing the right thing. Citizens hides behind the statute when it's convenient for them, instead of doing what's right."
Meanwhile, the ordeal has taken a toll on the Moutran family.
After years of battling with Citizens, Emilie's husband and Fred's father, Frederick C. Moutran, died of a heart attack on Dec. 1, 2012. He was 64.
The anxiety has since crippled Emilie, sending her into the hospital and forcing her to quit work as a newspaper carrier for the Tampa Bay Times. The mounting medical bills forced the family to get behind on their mortgage. They are now in foreclosure.
"We are running out of options," Fred Moutran said. "It seems to me like they're trying to force us to sue, so they can just wait us out and see that we're kicked out of the house."
Peltier of Citizens disputes that that is the goal. He encouraged the Moutrans to cash the $21,000 check and sign a contract to have their home stabilized.
"When a stabilization contract is submitted, the work begins," he said. "Once it is completed, the engineer goes back in to see if additional cosmetic repairs need to be made, as it is not uncommon for the stabilization process to cause some cosmetic damage. We pay for any additional work that needs to be done."
Emilie Moutran doesn't understand why the company wouldn't simply agree to pay for the repairs the engineers recommend.
"They spend millions of dollars to fight people rather than pay them the lousy $20,000 to $30,000 they owe them," she said. "It's mind-boggling."
She spends her time trying to sort through her belongings and prepare for the uncertain future. "I don't know what I'm going to do, to tell you the truth," she said. "I'm at my wit's end."