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Judge now has Katrina lawsuit case

A groundbreaking case that challenges one of the nation’s largest insurers for refusing to cover damage from Hurricane Katrina’s monster storm surge is now in the hands of a federal judge.

U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr., who presided over an eight-day trial without a jury, heard closing arguments Wednesday and promised a ruling “just as rapidly as possible.”

Paul and Julie Leonard of Pascagoula sued Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. after the Columbus, Ohio-based insurer paid them roughly $1,600 for the more than $130,000 in damage to their home. Their attorneys asked Senter to award them more than $158,000 for the damage to the house and its contents, plus interest and attorneys’ fees and expenses.

The suit is the first of hundreds of Katrina insurance lawsuits to be tried since the storm laid waste to homes and businesses all along the Gulf Coast last Aug. 29. Both sides agreed that Senter’s decision could hinge on a 1999 meeting between Paul Leonard and Jay Fletcher, the Nationwide agent who sold the Leonards their homeowners’ policy.

Paul Leonard testified earlier that Fletcher told him he didn’t need flood insurance, and he claims the agent misled him to believe his policy covered all hurricane damage. Fletcher denied saying that to Leonard or any other policyholder.

Don Barrett, an attorney for the Leonards, said in his closing argument that Fletcher “bound Nationwide to full coverage, wind and water, through his representations to Paul Leonard.”

“If Jay Fletcher had been hooked up to a lie detector test, you could have heard it ringing all the way to Memphis,” Barrett said. “Fletcher’s denial just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Nationwide attorney Dan Attridge told Senter that the terms of the Leonards’ policy can’t be rewritten after Katrina to give them coverage from flood insurance. All homeowner’s policies exclude damage from flood water, including wind-driven storm surge, he added.

“The evidence shows that Nationwide has fully complied with its obligations under the policy,” he said.

On Wednesday, Attridge questioned Paul Leonard’s account of the 1999 meeting with Fletcher, arguing that Leonard was mistaken about the date and substance of the conversation.

Attridge said that Leonard “got on the stand and told an embellished story” about that conversation.

Several other Nationwide policyholders also testified that Fletcher either told them they didn’t need flood insurance or convinced them that their policies covered all forms of hurricane damage.

Attridge defended Fletcher and said Paul Leonard knew his homeowner’s policy did not cover flood damage, including storm surge.

“The evidence shows that Nationwide has fully complied with its obligations under the policy,” Attridge said.

He said Fletcher had an “impeccable record” as an agent and had not misled the Leonards.

Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, one of the Leonards’ attorneys, said meteorologic and engineering evidence don’t figure as prominently in the Leonard case compared to many others still awaiting trial. Instead, Scruggs argued that Fletcher’s alleged assurances about the scope of coverage make Nationwide liable for all the damage, be it wind or water.