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Judge declines to rule out punitive damages in Katrina case

A federal judge Thursday refused to rule out punitive damages in the trial for a Biloxi homeowner’s lawsuit against State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. filed after Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter said he will let the jury decide whether State Farm owes Biloxi City Council member Edward Gemmill money for his claim as well as whether punitive damages are warranted in the case.

Closing arguments were expected to begin later Thursday.

The Aug. 29, 2005, storm demolished Edward Gemmill’s home, leaving only a slab. A flood insurance policy paid him the maximum of $128,100, but State Farm denied Gemmill’s claim under his homeowner’s policy.

Gemmill claims his home was completely destroyed by wind before any flooding, but State Farm blamed the damage on Katrina’s storm surge and says the company’s experts didn’t find any evidence of wind damage.

Gemmill is seeking the full amount of his $211,070 claim plus $5 million in punitive damages.

Outside the jury’s presence, Senter told attorneys for both sides that the facts of this case were different than the case brought by policyholders Norman and Genevieve Broussard and tried in January. In that trial, Senter took part of the case out of jurors’ hands and ruled State Farm was for damages.

“There are substantial differences between the facts of this case and those of the Broussard case,” Senter said of the Gemmill case.