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Tuesday, Nov 13, 2018
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Controversial sinkhole repair measure gets first approval in Legislature

TALLAHASSEE — A contentious sinkhole repair bill finally passed muster with a Senate panel, which cleared it on Tuesday.

The Senate Banking and Insurance committee approved the bill (SB 416) by 11-1, with Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens as the sole “no” vote.

The measure would create a sinkhole repair program under Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state’s largest insurer.

The idea is to ensure that sinkhole damage gets repaired properly and prevent policyholders from pocketing settlements without fixing their homes.

Trial-lawyer interests and others continued to point out the bill’s flaws. Among those, they say, it requires “specific performance” as a remedy for faulty repairs.

That means that the original contractor has to go back and fix his own bad work, instead of allowing the homeowner to get money damages and find someone else.

“You don’t get to hire your own contractor,” said Reggie Garcia of the Florida Justice Association. “If you’re the homeowner, you’re stuck.”

The measure would form a “Citizens Sinkhole Stabilization Repair Program.”

Policyholders with a sinkhole claim could select from a pool of qualified contractors, who would guarantee repairs with a 5-year warranty.

Bill sponsor Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has sought to control the costs of sinkhole claims and the likelihood of later lawsuits over botched repairs.

The Tampa Bay area is known as “sinkhole alley,” with two-thirds of state sinkhole damage in 2006-2010 coming from Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

The value of sinkhole claims for all insurers across Florida was $1.4 billion from 2009-11, according to the office.

Citizens, a nonprofit government corporation, is the insurer of last resort for homes in sinkhole prone areas.

Lawmakers passed another measure in 2011 aimed at making it harder to receive sinkhole claims.

But Simpson said there are now 2,200 active lawsuits across Florida about sinkhole damage, while the average premium has shot up to $2,100.

His bill has two more committee stops before reaching the full Senate for consideration. A companion bill is in the House.

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