Charles Vitale says the trouble started in June, when his insurance company sent a renewal notice for his homeowner's policy.
He and his wife, Shawn, considered dropping sinkhole coverage from the policy, which would save them $600. But Vitale had noticed a hairline crack on the wall of his garage, so he asked Tower Hill Insurance Group to do a sinkhole evaluation first.
The company complied, sending an engineer to their Land O'Lakes home to drill into soil along his foundation. The engineer worked along the southeast corner of the house when, all of a sudden, the Vitale's swimming pool started collapsing into itself.
"One minute, the pool was full of perfectly clear water, the next it's empty," Vitale said.
He remembers thinking it was a good thing he had paid for sinkhole coverage all these years, until Tower Hill denied his claim.
"This insurance company, sadly, has a right to say that and to do that," said state Sen. Mike Fasano. "Here's a family that did the prudent thing and paid to have sinkhole coverage."
Fasano has been a vocal critic of the 2011 insurance reform legislation that redefined how insurance companies handle sinkhole claims. Under the new laws, insurance companies only have to cover sinkhole losses that affect the main structure of the home — and only if there is significant structural damage to the house.
"I knew this was going to happen," Fasano said. "Swimming pools are no longer covered, and now the insurance company can say if the sinkhole started under the pool, they don't have to fix it. It was bad legislation and now we're seeing the consequences and repercussions of it."
In the months since the sinkhole opened under the pool, the Vitales say their home has begun to show cracks along the walls, ceilings and floors. The doors are no longer square, their kitchen cabinets are coming loose and their vinyl siding has started to pop off at the back of the house.
"We thought this was such an open-and-shut case," Vitale said. "We're getting worried about living here now."
The company doesn't dispute that they have a sinkhole. It sent an engineering firm, SDII Global Corp., to evaluate the damage in July and prepare a Subsidence Report. SDII confirmed the sinkhole activity and its inspector noted cracks in the ceilings and walls, as well as the floor tiles, the garage slab and the pool deck, according to the report. He also saw separation between the drywall and ceiling, but found the damage was cosmetic — not structural — and could have been caused by normal settlement and wear and tear of the house.
"Further, it is the opinion of SDII that the sinkhole activity identified at the site has been a concurrent cause of the observed cosmetic damage," the report says.
SDII proposed a corrective plan that involves injecting grout into the ground to stabilize the soil around the Vitales' home at a cost of $94,476. Tower Hill has declined the recommendation.
The Vitales requested a neutral evaluation by a third party, but the earliest appointment they could get is in February.
"My concern for that family is how much more damage will be done to the house while they sit around and wait for the neutral evaluator," Fasano said. "Every day their home crumbles a little bit more."
Tower Hill Insurance, based in Gainesville, insures more than 400,000 Florida homes. Scott Rowe, general counsel for Tower, said he could not comment on the Vitales' case because of privacy concerns.
"However, we will review the issues you have raised and take another look at the situation. Upon our review, we will get back in touch with the Vitales and provide them an update," he wrote in an email to the Tribune.