(1) As used in this section, the term:
(a) “Neutral evaluation” means the alternative dispute resolution provided for in this section.
(b) “Neutral evaluator” means a professional engineer or a professional geologist who has completed a course of study in alternative dispute resolution designed or approved by the department for use in the neutral evaluation process, who is determined to be fair and impartial.
(2)(a) The department shall certify and maintain a list of persons who are neutral evaluators.
(b) The department shall prepare a consumer information pamphlet for distribution by insurers to policyholders which clearly describes the neutral evaluation process and includes information and forms necessary for the policyholder to request a neutral evaluation.
(3) Following the receipt of the report provided under s. 627.7073 or the denial of a claim for a sinkhole loss, the insurer shall notify the policyholder of his or her right to participate in the neutral evaluation program under this section. Neutral evaluation supersedes the alternative dispute resolution process under s. 627.7015. The insurer shall provide to the policyholder the consumer information pamphlet prepared by the department pursuant to paragraph (2)(b). (4) Neutral evaluation is nonbinding, but mandatory if requested by either party. A request for neutral evaluation may be filed with the department by the policyholder or the insurer on a form approved by the department. The request for neutral evaluation must state the reason for the request and must include an explanation of all the issues in dispute at the time of the request. Filing a request for neutral evaluation tolls the applicable time requirements for filing suit for a period of 60 days following the conclusion of the neutral evaluation process or the time prescribed in s. 95.11, whichever is later.
(5) Neutral evaluation shall be conducted as an informal process in which formal rules of evidence and procedure need not be observed. A party to neutral evaluation is not required to attend neutral evaluation if a representative of the party attends and has the authority to make a binding decision on behalf of the party. All parties shall participate in the evaluation in good faith.
(6) The insurer shall pay the costs associated with the neutral evaluation.
(7) Upon receipt of a request for neutral evaluation, the department shall provide the parties a list of certified neutral evaluators. The parties shall mutually select a neutral evaluator from the list and promptly inform the department. If the parties cannot agree to a neutral evaluator within 10 business days, the department shall appoint a neutral evaluator from the department list. Upon selection or appointment, the department shall promptly refer the request to the neutral evaluator. Within 5 business days after the referral, the neutral evaluator shall notify the policyholder and the insurer of the date, time, and place of the neutral evaluation conference. The conference may be held by telephone, if feasible and desirable. The neutral evaluation conference shall be held within 45 days after the receipt of the request by the department.
(8) The department shall adopt rules of procedure for the neutral evaluation process.
(9) For policyholders not represented by an attorney, a consumer affairs specialist of the department or an employee designated as the primary contact for consumers on issues relating to sinkholes under s. 20.121 shall be available for consultation to the extent that he or she may lawfully do so.
(10) Evidence of an offer to settle a claim during the neutral evaluation process, as well as any relevant conduct or statements made in negotiations concerning the offer to settle a claim, is inadmissible to prove liability or absence of liability for the claim or its value, except as provided in subsection (13).
(11) Any court proceeding related to the subject matter of the neutral evaluation shall be stayed pending completion of the neutral evaluation.
(12) For matters that are not resolved by the parties at the conclusion of the neutral evaluation, the neutral evaluator shall prepare a report stating that in his or her opinion the sinkhole loss has been verified or eliminated and, if verified, the need for and estimated costs of stabilizing the land and any covered structures or buildings and other appropriate remediation or structural repairs. The evaluator’s report shall be sent to all parties in attendance at the neutral evaluation and to the department.
(13) The recommendation of the neutral evaluator is not binding on any party, and the parties retain access to court. The neutral evaluator’s written recommendation is admissible in any subsequent action or proceeding relating to the claim or to the cause of action giving rise to the claim.
(14) If the neutral evaluator first verifies the existence of a sinkhole and, second, recommends the need for and estimates costs of stabilizing the land and any covered structures or buildings and other appropriate remediation or structural repairs, which costs exceed the amount that the insurer has offered to pay the policyholder, the insurer is liable to the policyholder for up to $2,500 in attorney’s fees for the attorney’s participation in the neutral evaluation process. For purposes of this subsection, the term “offer to pay” means a written offer signed by the insurer or its legal representative and delivered to the policyholder within 10 days after the insurer receives notice that a request for neutral evaluation has been made under this section.
(15) If the insurer timely agrees in writing to comply and timely complies with the recommendation of the neutral evaluator, but the policyholder declines to resolve the matter in accordance with the recommendation of the neutral evaluator pursuant to this section:
(a) The insurer is not liable for extracontractual damages related to a claim for a sinkhole loss but only as related to the issues determined by the neutral evaluation process. This section does not affect or impair claims for extracontractual damages unrelated to the issues determined by the neutral evaluation process contained in this section; and
(b) The insurer is not liable for attorney’s fees under s. 627.428 or other provisions of the insurance code unless the policyholder obtains a judgment that is more favorable than the recommendation of the neutral evaluator.