Lawyer for couple suing Nationwide calls home inspection a ‘sham’

Published 6:49 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2006

An insurance company’s inspection of a Gulf Coast couple’s home after Hurricane Katrina was a “sham” because the insurer had already decided to deny their claim, an attorney said during Monday’s session of the landmark trial.

Duane Collins, a Nationwide adjuster who inspected the Pascagoula home of Paul and Julie Leonard, insists he went into the Dec. 20 inspection with an open mind even though the couple already was suing the Columbus, Ohio-based insurer for denying most of their claim.

Don Barrett, a lawyer for the Leonards, called the inspection a “sham.”

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“The fact is, you had your marching orders to deny the claim and get ready for a court fight,” Barrett said as he cross-examined Collins.

“No, that’s not correct,” the adjuster responded.

The trial, being heard without a jury before by U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter, could be precedent-setting. 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 the Aug. 29 hurricane’s powerful winds or by rising water.

Nationwide gave the Leonards a denial letter on Sept. 12, months before anyone from the company inspected the couple’s property.

The couple’s lawyers say a Nationwide representative had told Julie Leonard that her claim would be denied because she and her husband, a Pascagoula police officer, didn’t have flood coverage.

“They did deny it without an inspection — no question about it,” said Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, another attorney for the Leonards.

Nationwide spokesman Joe Case said the Leonards requested a denial letter in September because they needed it to apply for disaster benefits. Nationwide didn’t make a final decision on the couple’s claim until after the adjuster’s inspection, Case said.

Also on Sept. 12, Nationwide gave the Leonards a $2,500 check to cover living expenses, a step that Case said isn’t taken for policyholders whose claims have been denied. The Leonards returned the check the same day, he added.

The Leonards sued Nationwide on Oct. 4. Lawyers for both sides were present when Collins and a Nationwide-contracted engineer inspected the home in December.

Nationwide paid the Leonards around $1,600 for their claim after Katrina left the house with more than $130,000 in damage.

Last week, an adjuster who testified for the Leonards estimated that it would cost more than $47,000 to repair damage from wind.

Collins, however, said wind only was responsible for minor damage to a roof and a fence. The rest was caused by “storm surge” — wind-driven water from the Mississippi Sound — or from floating debris, he testified.

Nationwide says its policies cover damage from wind but not from rising water, including storm surge.

Timothy Marshall, a civil engineer hired by Nationwide to inspect the Leonards’ home, also testified Monday that Katrina’s storm surge was responsible for virtually all the damage.

Marshall, of Dallas-based HAAG Engineering Co., said storm surge reached the couple’s property by 8 a.m. on Aug. 29. and peaked at five feet inside the home around 11 a.m. The surge already had inundated the home before Katrina’s winds shifted in a direction that could have caused some of the damage, Marshall added.

Marshall also testified that wind gusts at the roof-level of the property peaked at 97 mph shortly before noon. He disputed testimony by a meteorologist, a witness for the Leonards, who said Katrina’s sustained winds peaked in Pascagoula at speeds between 120 and 125 mph.

Case accused the Leonards’ attorneys of ignoring a raft of evidence that water, not wind, was responsible for the vast majority of damage.

“It’s very, very curious that every time we start talking about the real facts of the claim,” Case said, “the Scruggs legal team backs away and starts talking about anything else.”

The Scruggs firm represents about 3,000 policyholders on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The firm also has filed lawsuits against other insurers, including Allstate Insurance Co., Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., State Farm Insurance Cos. and United Services Automobile Association.

The Leonards’ attorneys will cross-examine Marshall when the trial resumes Tuesday. Closing arguments are expected Wednesday, but could be delivered as early as Tuesday afternoon. Senter is not expected to issue an immediate ruling.