State Farm pulling plug on new policies

Published 5:41 pm Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mississippi’s largest homeowner insurer said Wednesday it has had enough of the “untenable” legal and political climate and is suspending writing new homeowners and commercial policies in a state still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

A spokesman for State Farm Insurance Cos. said the decision was due in part to the wave of litigation the company has encountered since the Aug. 29, 2005, storm. Mississippi is the latest state along the hurricane-vulnerable Gulf Coast to at least temporarily lose an insurer.

In Florida, several insurers have dropped tens of thousands of policies since the back-to-back storm seasons of 2004 and 2005, when eight hurricanes hit the state.

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And in Louisiana, many insurers have stopped writing new policies along that state’s coastline, said Amy Whittington, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Insurance. However, Whittington said no company has made a blanket decision eliminating all new business in that state, which — like Mississippi — stretches hundreds of miles northward from the Gulf of Mexico.

State Farm has more than 30 percent of the homeowners policies and 8.5 percent of its commercial policies in Mississippi. The company said the suspension would begin Friday and continue until the business climate in the state is more palatable.

As far as its current homeowner and commercial policies in the state, the company said in a statement that it continues to assess its position in the Mississippi marketplace “to determine what further steps, if any, are necessary.”

The suspension does not impact State Farm’s financial services, banking products or automobile coverage in the state.

Mike Fernandez, vice president of public affairs for State Farm, said Mississippi’s “current legal and political environment is simply untenable. We’re just not in a position to accept any additional risk in this homeowners’ market.”

The suspension was not a direct response to any specific development in the litigation, Fernandez said. That litigation has included a recent federal jury’s $2.5 million punitive damage award to a couple who sued State Farm for refusing to cover the Katrina’s storm surge damage to their Biloxi home.

U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. later reduced the award to $1 million, though he said State Farm acted in a “grossly negligent way” by denying the claim filed by policyholders Norman and Genevieve Broussard.

J. Robert Hunter, a former Texas Insurance Commissioner and now director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, said many other major insurers may be reluctant to step in and fill the void left by State Farm in Mississippi.

“A lot of the larger companies already are reluctant to write new business there,” Hunter said.

He said the action “will obviously make rates higher for people trying to get new policies. People with existing policies are probably going to pay more too just because of supply and demand.”

Robert Hartwig, vice president and chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute in New York, an industry-funded group, said the courts and some Mississippi officials have created a “virtually impossible working environment for insurers.”

“I view this decision as the inevitable outcome of the increased uncertainty and cost associated with the litigation that has developed post-Katrina,” Hartwig said of State Farm’s decision.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sharply criticized the decision, saying State Farm had indicated in the past they would remain in Mississippi and continue to write homeowner policies.

Hood said it was State Farm and not Mississippi that had created the problem by refusing to pay claims and dragging out the process.

“If they paid what they owed in the first place, there never would have been a lawsuit filed,” Hood said.

He said the insurer was trying to “nickel and dime” policyholders on the coast after making “$3.9 billion in the most catastrophic year in history.”

In the end, it could take indictments from the federal level and action by Congress to clean up the problem, he said.

Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale said the company’s suspension of writing new policies comes at a time in the recovery process when “it is becoming more vital than ever that policyholders in Mississippi have a viable and affordable insurance market.”

“State Farm’s decision is a stark reminder that the issues brought about by Hurricane Katrina affect not only the coast, but policyholders all across the state,” Dale said in a statement.

“It is my hope that by continuing to work with State Farm, they will at some time in the future reverse the decision,” Dale said.

State Farm has agreed to settle hundreds of lawsuits by policyholders and reopen and pay thousands of other disputed claims. The landmark deal is potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Mississippi homeowners devastated by Katrina. Fernandez said the company had written roughly 29,000 new homeowner policies in the Mississippi in 2006, while other companies were writing a smaller percentage of claims. Mississippi is the only state where his company has suspended writing new policies.

“The political and regulatory and legal environment in the other two states (hit by Katrina) — Louisiana and Alabama — is not the situation in Mississippi,” he said.

State Farm and other insurers say their homeowner policies cover damage from wind but not from water — and exclude damage that could have been caused by a combination of both, even if hurricane-force winds preceded a storm’s rising water. Hundreds of policyholders have challenged that claim, saying they are entitled to damages from storm surge.

“We don’t want to write new policies under a contract that they are calling into question,” Fernandez said. State Farm, in a settlement reached last month, agreed to pay about $80 million to more than 600 policyholders who sued the company for refusing to cover damage caused by Katrina.