Agent says he never advised Miss. couple against buying flood insurance

Published 1:32 am Sunday, July 16, 2006

The agent at the center of a landmark hurricane insurance case on Friday denied telling policyholder Paul Leonard that he didn’t need flood insurance years before Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. denied much of his claim following Hurricane Katrina.

Jay Fletcher said he met with Leonard, a Pascagoula police officer, in 1999 to discuss changes in the homeowner’s policy held by Leonard and his wife, Julie. Fletcher said he never advised Leonard against buying flood insurance.

“Did Mr. Leonard ask you to sell him a flood insurance policy?” Nationwide attorney Micky Cowan asked Friday during the fifth day of a trial in U.S. District Court.

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“He did not,” Fletcher responded.

“At any time?” Cowan asked.

“He did not,” Fletcher said.

Leonard testified earlier this week that he asked Fletcher about flood insurance after Hurricane Georges in 1998, and Fletcher told him, “You don’t need that s—.”

On Friday, Fletcher denied saying that.

“Nor would I ever say that to a policyholder,” he said.

Leonard’s attorneys also have argued the Fletcher did not sell flood insurance because he didn’t make much money off it.

Fletcher testified that in addition to 1,100 homeowner policies, he sold 187 flood policies through the National Flood Insurance Program between 2001 and Aug. 29, 2005 — the day Katrina blew ashore and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

This year alone, Fletcher said his office had made $19,000 in commissions from flood insurance policies. He said the government-backed flood insurance program pays him commissions of 15 percent.

Fletcher initially was among the defendants in the case, but was dropped from the lawsuit before the trial began.

The trial recessed for the weekend. It is expected to resume Monday with testimony from a Nationwide adjuster. One or two more days of testimony are expected before attorneys deliver their closing arguments.

Others who purchased policies from Fletcher have testified that, before Katrina, they asked the agent whether they needed flood insurance.

Pascagoula resident Cecil Tillman testified earlier this week that after Hurricane Georges he asked Fletcher about the need for flood insurance and the agent “just shrugged it off.” Fletcher, however, denied Friday that he told Tillman not to buy flood insurance.

Another policyholder, Munson Hinman, said he walked into Fletcher’s office with a check to purchase flood insurance months before Katrina, but he claimed the agent talked him out of it. After the storm, Nationwide paid Hinman $136,998 for flood damage to his Pascagoula home even though he didn’t have flood insurance.

Fletcher didn’t purchase flood insurance for his own Pascagoula home, which sustained around $148,500 in damage from Katrina’s winds and water.

Fletcher said Nationwide paid him $40,000 for his $50,000 claim. Zach Scruggs, one of the Leonards’ attorneys, asked Fletcher why he submitted a claim for belongings that were damaged by water if he knew his policy doesn’t cover damage from flooding.

“They denied the claim, and I accepted that,” Fletcher said. “I didn’t think they were going to cover it, but I submitted them.”

The Leonards’ case could be precedent-setting since it is the first trial for the hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed by Gulf Coast homeowners challenging insurance companies over disputes about whether property damage was caused by Katrina’s powerful winds or by rising water.

Nationwide, based in Columbus, Ohio, added language to some of its policies years ago to define “storm surge” as a form of flooding, a company executive testified earlier Friday.

The storm surge language wasn’t part of the Leonards’ policy, the couple’s attorneys say.

After Katrina, Nationwide paid the Leonards only a fraction of their damage claim on their two-story home, which sits about two blocks off the beach.

Richard Yuill, Nationwide’s underwriting policy director for several southern states, testified that the company offers different types of policies. He said for some policies, the language about storm surge being a form of flooding was added in 1999.

“I would say that it was included as a clarification only, not as a modification,” Yuill said of the language change.

John Jones, an attorney for the Leonards, asked: “What are you clarifying?”

Yuill responded: “It’s another way of saying something, that’s all.”

U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr., who is hearing the case without a jury, earlier banned attorneys from discussing in court any changes that were made to the Leonards’ Nationwide policy after Katrina.

Outside the courtroom Friday, another of the couple’s attorneys, Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, said his clients didn’t have any official notice of the 1999 change until Sept. 7, 2005, a week and a half after Katrina.

“The Leonards didn’t get anything until after the storm, when they got something for the very first time that included the term ‘storm surge,’” Scruggs said.

Nationwide spokeswoman Gayle Saunders said storm surge has always been considered flooding and has been excluded from coverage in all of the company’s homeowner’s policies long before 1999.