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Witnesses say insurance agent misled them about storm coverage

Glenda Foster says that, with Hurricane Katrina advancing in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, she was assured by her insurance agent that her renter’s policy had “all the bells and whistles” she needed.

After Katrina destroyed her beachfront home and damaged her business in Pascagoula last year, Foster was told that most of the damage to the contents of her home were not covered.

Foster was one of several Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. policyholders to testify Tuesday in a trial that could be a barometer of whether thousands of people whose homes were destroyed by Katrina can receive payouts for losses that their insurance companies claim were caused by flooding.

The trial of a case brought by Pascagoula residents Paul and Julie Leonard is the first among hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed by Gulf Coast homeowners challenging insurance companies over the wind-versus-water issue.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys hope a ruling in the homeowners’ favor would pressure insurance companies to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for homeowners whose claims have been rejected.

The case is being heard without a jury by U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. The Leonards claim they were misled by their Nationwide agent and then denied much of their claim for their damaged home without a full review of the facts.

Nationwide maintains that while wind damage is covered by its homeowners’ policies, damage from flooding is excluded, including Katrina’s wind-driven storm surge.

Foster said her Nationwide agent was Jay Fletcher, the same agent who sold the Leonards their policy about a decade ago. She said she asked Fletcher about her policy during a visit to her business.

“‘Jay, are you sure we’re covered?’” Foster recalled asking Fletcher.

“‘Glenda, you’re good to go. You’ve got all the bells and whistles. Let her blow, girl, let her blow,’” Fletcher responded, according to Foster.

Foster said that after Katrina, she drove an adjuster to Fletcher’s office and confronted him about the policy. She said Fletcher leaned back in his chair and quipped: “‘I told her ‘let her blow.’ I didn’t say ’let her flood.’ You don’t have any flood insurance.”’

Chiropractor Munson Hinman testified that, at least in his case, Nationwide paid him $136,998 for flood damage to his Pascagoula home even though he didn’t have flood insurance.

Hinman said he went to Fletcher in the middle of June 2005 to ask about flood insurance. He said he even had a check ready to pay for the coverage but Fletcher had talked him out of it.

“He was emphatic that it wasn’t necessary,” Hinman said of Fletcher.

After months of haggling and complaining when he wasn’t fully paid on his claim, Hinman said he received the check from Nationwide.

Joe Case, a spokesman for Nationwide who is attending the trial, said Hinman’s case differed from that of the Leonards.

“They are apples and oranges cases,” Case said. “At no time did Jay Fletcher tell Paul Leonard he did not need flood insurance.”

Leonard, however, testified Monday that Fletcher specifically told him he didn’t need flood insurance. Fletcher is expected to testify later this week.

Robert Brasher and Cecil Tillman, who also purchased policies from Fletcher, both testified that they didn’t purchase flood insurance because they thought their policies had covered all hurricane damage.

Tillman, 57, said he rode out the hurricane in his home less than a mile from the Mississippi Sound and described how Katrina’s winds had knocked out a window before water started pouring through his doors.

He recalled after Hurricane Georges in 1998 he had asked Fletcher about the need for flood insurance and the agent “just shrugged it off.” Tillman said he confronted Fletcher after Katrina and the agent denied telling him not to buy flood insurance.

Asked by a Nationwide attorney to explain why he did not press Fletcher on whether water damage would be covered by his policy, Tillman said he believed “hurricane coverage should cover everything involved in a hurricane … (Fletcher) should know what I should need.”

Outside the courtroom, Case said purchasing flood insurance is customers’ choice if they live outside a flood zone.

“There’s an element of personal responsibility, of understanding what is in one’s policy,” Case said.

The trial is scheduled to resume Wednesday with expert testimony from meteorologists, engineers and claims adjusters for both sides.

An engineer who inspected the Leonards’ home for Nationwide concluded that Katrina’s high winds and storm surge peaked around the same time on the morning of Aug. 29.

However, several Pascagoula residents who rode out Katrina at home testified Tuesday that the storm’s destructive winds were blowing for several hours before water from the Mississippi Sound flooded their homes.

Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, one of the Leonards’ attorneys, represents about 3,000 policyholders on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The Scruggs law 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.