Rubin: With sinkhole damage, sorry — you’re not covered

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

If the first thought is sympathy for the people whose homes have been fractured by the gaping sinkhole in Fraser, the reasonable second thought is self-preservation: Am I covered for that?

The answer, almost certainly, is no.

According to the Insurance Institute of Michigan (IIM), virtually no one here buys sinkhole insurance because, well, we don’t get sinkholes — at least not outside Fraser, and not at the hand of nature.

According to a lawyer who tussles with insurance companies for a living, while there are parts of a standard homeowners policy that might seem to apply to a gaping hole in the street, they don’t — at least not the way the industry defines the problem.

According to a former local weather forecaster who lost a house to Hurricane Katrina, even specific riders in a policy might not get you paid off — at least until you sue.

And that’s assuming you could even entice someone to sell you sinkhole protection. Michigan Community Insurance of Wixom checked its six home insurance carriers and couldn’t find any who would even write the coverage.

Bottom line, said Southfield attorney Barry Feldman, the residents affected by the Christmas Eve disaster are on their own — though it might help if they band together. And if they’re going to sue, he added, they’d best figure out who the defendants are and act quickly.

The people most affected so far have their fingers crossed for a payout. Sue and Jerry Albu, whose 1,830-square-foot, $260,000 house on Eberlein is sagging into the pit near 15 Mile and Hayes, told The Detroit News that they’re “letting insurance run its course.”

Unfortunately, that course will likely hit a roadblock.

A specific rider on your policy to cover sinkholes is “kind of like flood insurance,” said executive director Peter Kuhnmuench of the IIM, “if you live on the side of a mountain.”

Overall, he said, common property damage and liability issues account for 99 percent of home insurance claims. Sinkholes make up a tiny fraction of what’s left. Only Florida and Tennessee, with their notoriously unstable bedrock, require home insurers to specifically offer sinkhole coverage.

“When was the last time you heard of a sinkhole in Michigan?” Kuhnmuench asked.

The most likely answer is 2004, close enough to the current collapse to hear the rumble of the bulldozers. That problem, just across Hayes Road in Sterling Heights, closed 15 Mile for 10 months.

Still, a man-made mess wouldn’t inspire most of us to ask for sinkhole protection. Even the Albus, who were inconvenienced by the sewer-related closure 12 years ago, did not attempt to add a rider to their insurance.

“Why should I have had to do that?” Sue Albu asked. When one unnatural disaster is a scandal, who could predict a second?

Her basic policy is the same as most people’s. Tree limb crashes through the roof: covered. Foundation suddenly becomes swaybacked because of escaping sewage: not covered.

A sinkhole buckles this Fraser home. Only Florida and Tennessee require home insurers to specifically offer sinkhole coverage.

“As a general rule,” said Feldman, homeowners policies wash their hands of damage caused “directly or indirectly by water, mud, earth movement and such.”

From his perspective, that “very problematic provision” should refer to natural disasters like earthquakes or a rampaging Rouge River. In practice, it means anything the insurance industry wants it to, including unnatural disasters like a 100-by-250-foot sinkhole around a sewer pipe.

Slabs of driveway sit askew at the house opposite the Albus’. Fraser mayor Joe Nichols said at least three houses figure to be total losses — but the mortgage clock never stops ticking, and the owners of those homes and 19 others deemed at least temporarily uninhabitable need to live somewhere, whatever the cost.

Former weather reporter Kim Adams said she still feels guilty that while others struggled, she was able to return to Michigan and take a well-paying on-air job after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in 2005.

Adams, who’s now a commercial spokesperson and owns a production company, had purchased both flood insurance and a hurricane rider after relocating with her naval officer husband and their children. When the storm reduced their $250,000 ranch home to two walls, she said, the flood insurance company blamed the wind and the home insurance company blamed the water.

“You’re telling me,” she said to one adjuster, “that if I have an above-ground swimming pool and the wind picks it up, slams it into my house and damages everything inside, that’s not caused by water.”

Exactly, the adjuster said. The other adjuster pointed to a rain gutter dangling from what was left of her house and said, “That right there, that’s wind.” The gutter, he’d pay for.

Geoffrey Fieger ultimately sued on her behalf and won a confidential settlement that still, she said, left her far short of breaking even.

Feldman predicted that the damage to the less-impacted homes on Eberlein would fall in the $10,000 to $50,000 range, “and you can’t litigate that.” Lawyers and expert witnesses are too expensive for such relatively small payouts.

Collectively, though, it might be worth the homeowners’ while to determine who is responsible — the contractor, back in 1972? The repair team in 2004? The drainage district? — and file jointly. It’s the same experts, after all.

Make the insurance claims anyway, he said, just to see what happens. But strike quickly in court before companies vanish or time limits expire.

As for himself, Feldman said, he’s not worried. He and his wife downsized and sold their house in West Bloomfield.

These days, they rent.