A decade ago, it was questionable sinkhole damage that proliferated in Florida property insurance claims. More recently, “free roof” requests, roof claims and thousands of lawsuits have rocked the industry.
Now come cast-iron drainpipes, which are common in homes built before 1975.
According to insurance attorneys, surveyors and engineers, the pipe systems have become targets for some of Florida’s largest law firms. It’s possible the pipes will lead to many more claims and lawsuits in the years to come after the Florida legislature takes action to reduce roof claims and litigation.” We’re seeing patterns. Patterns in property claims,” said Cassandra Hand-Gallegos, expert witness and CEO at CCMS & Associates in Dunedin, Fla., speaking at the Florida Defense Lawyers Association Claims Conference in Orlando last week.
“The biggest problem isn’t what’s going on in the pipes, it’s what’s going on in the insurance claims industry,” said David Grindley, a civil forensic engineer who also spoke at the conference.
For example, a recent television ad from Orlando-based Morgan & Morgan, which bills itself as America’s largest personal injury law firm, shows large amounts of cash that could be available to homeowners whose homes are over 45 years old and who may have problems with sanitation . Replacing the plumbing in a home can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000, Morgan & Morgan’s website notes.
Another plaintiff’s law firm, Florin Roebig of West Palm Beach, reports that about 76 million US homes have cast-iron plumbing, “an alarming number” of which have problems. That risk is high in Florida, with its high humidity and saline soil, the company’s website says.
Grindley and Hand-Gallegos said many of these claims were exaggerated. Cast iron pipe doesn’t often need full replacement, and there are ways to prevent erroneous or false pipe claims and litigation, they argue.
“Cast iron is superior to other materials in many ways,” Grindley said. “The pipes are very rigid. They are strong and won’t break if you hit them with a shovel while digging in the garden.”
The pipes have been in use in many households for more than a century. But they can rust to a degree and develop deposits on the inside that can restrict the flow of drain water, something a growing number of claims have tried to capitalize on, he said.
Grindley said many insurance claims start with a clogged kitchen sink. In a number of cases his company has investigated, homeowners, public surveyors or plumbers have claimed that mold and mildew under sinks are the result of stuck cast iron pipes.
More likely, he said, the growth is due to years of leaks in plastic drains or utility lines, or seepage at the pool’s edge.
One way to tell if the clog in the main drain pipe is under the house or under the sink is to see where the overflow started. A secured main drain line will push the water up through the lowest opening first, Grindley explained. If the sink, 36 inches off the floor, overflows — but the floor-level shower drain doesn’t — it means the sink drain is clogged, not the drain lines for the whole house.
For this reason, it is important for insurance adjusters to interview homeowners where and when the fuse was discovered whenever possible.
“Always ask: Where was the claimant at the time of the defection? Where did they stand? in the kitchen? “In the bathroom?” Grindley said. “When they say ‘the kitchen,’ we’re skeptical it’s the main drain line.”
Another rule of thumb: Household drain lines don’t hold that much water. If the whole house is flooding, it’s probably due to a utility line or external water source – not a clogged drain pipe.
Many homeowners insurance policies completely exclude water line damage. Others rule out damage from creeping leaks. Despite the use of these endorsements, however, all-weather water claims and litigation appear to be on the rise in Florida and have resulted in a number of appeal rulings — some for insurers, others against — in recent years. The exact wording of the insurance contract is often disputed.
To investigate and defend against cast iron pipe claims, Grindley and Hand-Gallegos offered several other rules for insurance companies and their adjusters and appraisers to follow:
- Examine the house carefully. This may require a video inspection inside the drain lines to determine the condition of the pipes and find any obstructions. Check vent and stack tubes for proper airflow. Map the location of pipes.
- Obtain building permits to determine if plumbing installation and repairs have been performed correctly. Check the damage history. Report to the carrier any information not provided.
- Determine if the blockage can be easily resolved. In most cases, blocked lines can be removed with a water jet or with a root cutter or a simple auger. (But be prepared to quickly mop up any water that might spill out during the procedure.)
- And if cast-iron pipes are clogged, it does not mean that the entire system needs to be replaced. Often, pipes can be cleaned and then lined with polymer sleeves that will last for decades.
- Be prepared to counteract the “hydrostatic test” often employed by plaintiffs’ experts. The test is designed to look for leaks in a drainage system by plugging outlets and filling the pipe with water, Grindley explained. If the water level drops in a relatively short period of time, this can indicate a leak. Grindley said the test is misleading and almost always shows “leakage” because drain lines are not typically pressurized and are not exposed to these conditions in everyday use.
- Beware of additional damages or “last resort” claims such as B. “Contaminated or damaged soil” around the pipes. “Ground is ground. Is it contaminated just because sewage came in contact with it?” Grindley asked. “You can put some lime on it and 24 hours later you’re good to go.”
- If it is determined that the drain pipes do in fact need to be replaced, consider routing them around the outside of the home rather than using the disruptive and expensive method of having to cut through the concrete slab in multiple rooms.
And watch out for claimants’ experienced plumbers reporting that a full pipe replacement is necessary when those plumbers have a vested interest in getting the job done. Grindley quoted from a plaintive plumber’s report that the system was about to fail simply because it was 66 years old.
“Anyone here who is 66 or older?” he asked the crowd of insurance defense attorneys and appraisers. “Have you failed?”
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