State regulators probe State Farm’s handling of Katrina claims

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 23, 2006

State Farm Insurance Co. will be the first of several major insurers to be investigated by Mississippi’s insurance commissioner over their handling of policyholders’ claims after Hurricane Katrina.

Insurance Commissioner George Dale said Tuesday that the probe will begin with State Farm because the Bloomington, Ill.-based company has written more policies on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast than any other insurer.

Dale said the insurance department’s reviews are designed to detect any “inappropriate practices,” as well as gauge whether companies broke any insurance laws and met their “contractual obligations” to policyholders following last year’s storm.

“Who knows what we’ll find?” Dale said. “I really don’t want to be presumptuous either way.”

State Farm spokesman Phil Supple said the review, which started about three weeks ago, “was not unexpected” in the wake of a disaster as destructive as Katrina, which destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Dale’s office also conducted market conduct exams of insurance companies after Hurricane Georges hit the coast in 1998.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with (Dale’s office) and show him the job that we’re proud we have done,” Supple said, adding that State Farm has paid more than $1.2 billion in claims since the storm.

Hundreds of homeowners have filed lawsuits challenging State Farm and other insurers for refusing to cover billions of dollars in damage from Katrina’s rising water. The companies say their policies cover damage from wind but not from flood water, including wind-driven storm surge.

For months, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office has been investigating whether State Farm and other insurers fraudulently denied claims after Katrina. Lawyers for insurers and policyholders say U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton’s office is conducting a similar criminal investigation.

Dale said the market conduct exams are more thorough than the financial exams that his office is required to conduct every three years for any insurance company licensed by the state.

“We go in and interview people, look at files and look at anything else to be sure that insurance companies have treated people properly,” he said.

Dale said at the end of the probe, his office will take “whatever corrective actions are deemed necessary.” He couldn’t say how long the review will last.

After Katrina, Dale’s office set up a mediation program for homeowners who haven’t sued their insurers. As of mid-October, 82 percent of 3,372 mediation cases have resulted in settlements, according to the insurance department.

Dale couldn’t say which companies also face reviews, but other major property insurers in Mississippi include Allstate Insurance Co., Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. and United Services Automobile Association.

Dale’s office has the authority to revoke a company’s license to conduct business in the state, impose fines or order an insurer to readjust a claim.

Some critics have faulted Dale for not doing more to hold insurance companies accountable for their handling of Katrina claims.

Zach Scruggs, a lawyer whose firm has sued State Farm and other insurers on behalf of hundreds of policyholders, said he had hoped Dale would be a more aggressive advocate for homeowners.

“I don’t know how thorough it’s going to be,” he said of Dale’s review. “We hope that this isn’t a public relations move but something substantive.”

Dale said he doesn’t let his critics guide his actions.

“I never have been one to jump and scream and holler before I get all the facts,” he said, adding, “There’s not a single insurance commissioner in the U.S. who has the authority to make an insurance company pay a claim that they don’t feel like they owe.”

Insurers have paid homeowners more than $5.8 billion for roughly 355,000 claims filed in Mississippi after Katrina, according to Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

Hartwig said such reviews are routinely ordered by insurance commissioners after catastrophes. “It would be very unusual for serious sanctions to be taken against a company,” he said.