Another hurricane lawsuit filed against State Farm

Published 7:44 pm Friday, August 11, 2006

Judy Dutruch has long questioned why her insurance company refused to send an engineer to investigate Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of her Diamondhead home on Aug. 29, 2005, before denying her claim.

Batesville attorney Richard “Flip” Phillips, who seeks to represent a class of State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. policyholders like Dutruch, thinks he has the answer.

Phillips has uncovered a Sept. 13, 2005, memo authored at State Farm’s Bloomington, Ill., headquarters and sent to employees handling Katrina claims in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The subject: “Wind/Water Claim Handling Protocol.”

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The memo says policyholders have no coverage unless wind damage is separate from damage caused by storm surge, which the homeowner policy excludes from coverage.

Phillips is trying to get the lawsuit, filed on behalf of State Farm policyholder Judy Guice of Ocean Springs, certified as a class-action case.

In documents filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, he says this would allow a federal judge to decide, on behalf of thousands of “all-risk” homeowner policyholders, that State Farm must pay claims in full when wind and water damage can’t be separated.

Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, a high-profile attorney whose firm represents about 3,000 Gulf Coast policyholders, has already filed separate lawsuits against Nationwide and State Farm on behalf of hundreds of policyholders for each company.

State Farm maintains it has treated customers fairly. The company has investigated each homeowner claim individually and is paying what is owed under its policies, the company has said repeatedly. The company maintains it should not be expected to pay for damage no premiums were collected to cover.

The Guice lawsuit seeks to represent those policyholders with “slab” or “foundation only” claims in Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties. It further seeks to represent homeowners in cases in which a State Farm adjuster requested an engineering report that the company subsequently canceled.

Those claims, the lawsuit says, should be paid in full. Such was the case with Guice’s claim. State Farm concluded wind and a 19-foot storm surge destroyed the property, leaving only pilings. The State Farm adjuster on Guice’s flood policy, Joe Caruso, was unable to distinguish wind from flood damage and requested an engineering report Oct. 1 on a company form.

Guice, herself an attorney, was assured Oct. 22 by another State Farm representative that an engineer would inspect the property, according to company records subpoenaed in the case.

Caruso wrote a memo Oct. 27 saying Guice’s living expenses under the State Farm homeowner policy would be cut off and no engineer would be sent to the site.

Her flood policy, also issued by State Farm, was paid in full through the National Flood Insurance Program, but covered only a portion of her losses.

Phillips asked a State Farm claims manager in sworn testimony what prompted the change.

The manager, Terry Blalock said: “Well, as time progressed and the storm information from what happened in the storm became more available and more apparent as to what caused the damage, there were some cases that we noted that we no longer needed to hire an engineer in order to determine what caused the damage on those locations.”

Blalock also said, “This claim, Judy Guice’s claim, was handled in accordance with the wind/water protocol.”

If Phillips is successful in having Guice’s case certified as a class-action case, any ruling in her favor could benefit Dutruch and other State Farm customers, even if they decide against filing lawsuits themselves.