• 73°

Judge orders mediation for dozens of Katrina insurance cases

David Rideout braced for a grueling court battle when he sued Allstate Insurance Co. for denying his claim after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

To his surprise, all it took was two hours behind closed doors for both sides to hash out their differences and settle the case without a trial. Rideout says the agreement should enable him to pay for rebuilding the home.

“The negotiation was amicable and strictly done on an objective financial basis,” said Rideout, who has a confidentiality agreement that bars him from disclosing the settlement’s terms.

Rideout was one of the first participants in an experimental mediation program designed to ease the crushing load of litigation spawned by last year’s epic storm, which damaged or destroyed more than 250,000 homes in Louisiana and Mississippi.

With hundreds of Katrina lawsuits clogging his docket, U.S. District Court Judge L.T. Senter Jr. has ordered several dozen plaintiffs and their insurers to sit down with a mediator and make a good faith effort to resolve their differences, or face “appropriate sanctions.”

Settlements were reached in seven of the first 17 mediation cases, including Rideout’s two weeks ago. Encouraged by those results, Senter last week ordered mediations for 57 more cases, according to one of the judge’s law clerks.

Senter, who presided over the first trial for a Katrina lawsuit, sided with insurance companies in that case when he ruled in August that standard homeowner’s policies cover damage from wind but not from a hurricane’s rising water. Insurers have refused to pay for billions of dollars in damage from Katrina’s wind-driven “storm surge.”

The next batch of trials is scheduled to start early next year, with several judges from other districts joining Senter in presiding over the cases. In the meantime, Senter has solicited advice from attorneys on the best way to resolve hundreds of these cases in a “just, speedy and inexpensive” manner.

Senter hasn’t indicated whether he views court-ordered mediation as a long-term solution to the backlog, but the process already is getting mixed reviews from plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Chip Merlin, whose Tampa, Fla.-based Merlin Law Group has had more than two dozen Katrina cases ordered into mediation, said the process can only help his clients get the money they deserve.

“Our clients want to get on with their lives, get their businesses back in business and get their homes rebuilt,” Merlin said. “They don’t want this to drag out.”

Other attorneys aren’t as supportive. Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, whose legal team is suing insurers on behalf of hundreds of policyholders, has urged Senter to try cases by groups of plaintiffs instead of individually. Mediation “has no teeth in it,” he added.

“If they were going to pay these claims,” Scruggs said of insurers, “they would have done it already.”

Many homeowners who haven’t sued their insurers have agreed to mediate their disputes through a program sponsored by Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale. As of Oct. 16, 82 percent of those voluntary 3,372 mediation cases have resulted in settlements, according to Dale’s office.

Some plaintiffs’ lawyers say court-ordered mediation may be more effective because it carries a judicial seal of approval.

“When you have the participation of the court, it means more to all the parties,” said attorney Ben Galloway, who already has settled two cases through Senter’s experimental program.

Insurance companies also appear to support the process.

An Allstate spokesman said mediation is “less adversarial, time-consuming and costly than litigation.” A spokesman for State Farm Insurance Co. called it a “rapid approach to reaching mutual agreement.” A spokesman for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. said the sessions offer both sides a “good opportunity for open dialogue.”

Rideout, 50, said he was prepared to “go all the way” and wait months for his case to be tried, but he is grateful for the chance to move on with his life.

“It was less emotional than I expected,” he said of the negotiations, which were held at a federal courthouse in Gulfport. “It was strictly dollars and cents.”