March 26, 2013 at 03:00 AM EDT
Are neutral evaluators in Florida sinkhole disputes really "neutral?"
March 26, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Are neutral evaluators in Florida sinkhole disputes really "neutral?"

A few years ago, a change was made to Florida law that was originally touted as a fair and evenhanded way to help homeowners and insurance providers settle sinkhole damage disputes - otherwise known as the "Neutral Evaluation Process."

Under this process - which is regulated by the Florida Department of Financial Services (DFS) - if a disagreement develops between a Florida homeowner and his or her insurance provider regarding a sinkhole insurance claim, either party can ask for a neutral evaluation of the claim.

Basically, the process involves an informal conference known as an evaluation proceeding; at which, either party is free to submit any evidence or testimony they reasonably believe will help the evaluator in determining the extent of the sinkhole damage and the appropriate repairs. Ultimately, the evaluator is free to stop this proceeding if the homeowner and insurer come to a settlement, but if a settlement is not achieved the evaluator must prepare and file his or her conclusions regarding the sinkhole damage and suggested repairs.

Unfortunately, while this process may appear reasonable and fair at first glance, the specific qualifications for what is considered a "neutral" evaluator - which are delineated by the DFS - may call into question his or her actual impartiality.

Qualifications for Florida neutral evaluators

Although Florida statutory law states that homeowners and insurers involved in sinkhole insurance disputes have to right to have their disagreements heard by a neutral evaluator, it doesn't actually define what constitutes a neutral evaluator. It does say, however, that the DFS shall "certify and maintain a list" of neutral evaluators - which means the Florida Administrative Code may contain a DFS rule pertaining to certifying neutral evaluators.

According to DFS Rule 69J-8.804, applicants seeking to be certified as a sinkhole claims neutral evaluator must be a professional geologist or professional engineer and must have completed an approved alternative dispute resolution course. While these two qualifications seem fairly straightforward, it is the third qualification that can prove a bit tricky - which is that the evaluator must be fair and impartial.

Under the specific language of the rule, a neutral evaluator is considered fair and impartial unless he or she obtains "more than 90 percent of [his or her] gross income or revenue in the prior calendar year from contracts with property insurers."

Based on this language, an evaluator can theoretically get 89 percent of his or her income from insurance companies and still be considered impartial by the DFS. Obviously, some homeowners may give pause when they discover that their "neutral" evaluator obtains a majority of his or her income insurance companies.

As this article indicates, the entire neutral evaluation process can be quite complex, with several pitfalls that homeowners need to be wary off. Consequently, it is often best for homeowners to speak with a knowledgeable sinkhole insurance claim attorney to ensure their rights are protected if their home suffers sinkhole damage.

Article provided by Corless Barfield Trial Group
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