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Insurers win first round in fight over Katrina claims

Round One went to the insurers.

A federal judge in Gulfport, presiding over the first trial for a Katrina insurance lawsuit, ruled in August that Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.’s homeowners policies cover damage from a hurricane’s wind but not from its rising water, including wind-driven storm surge.

U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr., who heard the case without a jury, ordered Nationwide to pay policyholders Paul and Julie Leonard of Pascagoula about $1,228 more than what the company already had paid for wind damage. The couple’s home had more than $130,000 in damage.

The judge rejected an argument by the Leonards’ attorneys, including high-profile litigator Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, that Nationwide’s policies are ambiguous and therefore cannot be enforced because storm surge isn’t specifically excluded from coverage.

Senter’s ruling — one of the state’s top news stories in 2006 — is only the opening salvo in a legal battle that could stretch on for years as other homeowners wait in line for their day in the court.

While those cases slowly wend their way through Senter’s court, the battleground could shift to an appellate court in New Orleans. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is poised to hear the Leonards’ case and rule on whether insurers should pay for damage from storm surge.

In the meantime, trials are set to open for the next batch of Katrina insurance cases in Mississippi. First up is a case that Long Beach resident Richard Tejedor brought against State Farm Insurance Co. for denying his claim after Katrina reduced his home to a slab.

And this time a jury, not a judge, will hear evidence at trial. Jury selection for Tejedor’s case is scheduled to start Jan. 8.

The wave of civil cases isn’t the only concern for insurance companies after Katrina. Insurers also face criminal probes into their handling of Katrina claims.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has said his office is investigating whether insurance companies fraudulently denied claims after Katrina. At least two State Farm employees are believed to be targets of Hood’s investigation.

State Farm attorneys also say a federal grand jury is probing similar allegations, but U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton has neither confirmed nor denied that his office is investigating Katrina insurance fraud.