tampabay.com

Jury orders Citizens to pay

By LEONORA LAPETER
Published May 19, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - A Pinellas County jury has sided with a Crescent Lake homeowner in a battle with Citizens Property Insurance Corp. over whether a sinkhole damaged his home.

Friday's verdict has the potential to affect other cases, especially in the Crescent Lake area, where insurance companies have rejected sinkhole claims.

Citizens Property Insurance Corp. must pay the full policy limit - $103, 000 - on the Crescent Lake home of Oliver and Eriko Leeds. Attorneys for Citizens could not be reached Friday to say whether they planned to appeal.

Leeds, a major in the Air Force, bought his house in 2003. Within a year, he and his wife noticed cracks in the walls. They grew larger and are now 6 or more inches in some places. The couple was reassigned to Texas last summer and have been paying rent on a home there and the mortgage on the Crescent Lake home.

"I'm very frustrated with Citizens, " said Oliver Leeds. "They went to great lengths to be unhelpful. The whole purpose for having insurance is so you sleep better at night and if there is a disaster you know that help is on the way."

Several homeowners in Crescent Lake, just north of downtown St. Petersburg, have spent tens of thousands of dollars shoring up foundations and patching cracks. At least three homes have been demolished.

Lawyers for Citizens argued that the Leeds' home was destroyed because the soft soil beneath it sank. The area was actually part of the lake, which the neighborhood is named for, 80 years ago. But Leeds' attorney, Chip Merlin, argued that the home, built in 1939, would have sunk long ago if that is the case.

If Citizens agrees to pay on the verdict, Leeds said he would use it to pay down the mortgage on the house, which has been declared a total loss.