Judge says no to class action against State Farm over Katrina damage

Published 6:30 pm Friday, March 23, 2007

A federal judge refused Thursday to allow a class action against State Farm Insurance Cos. for the insurer’s denial of claims by policyholders on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

State Farm policyholder Judy Guice had asked U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. to permit her to join other policyholders whose homes were reduced to slabs by the August 2005 storm in a class action against the Bloomington, Ill.-based insurer.

The judge, who heard testimony on the proposal during a Feb. 28 hearing, ruled Thursday that a class action for “slab cases” is “inconsistent with the requirements of due process.”

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“While each of the many ‘slab cases’ has in common the fact that the insured property was totally destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, the many other factual differences between the cases preclude the relief that Guice is seeking,” Senter wrote in his three-page ruling.

In a class action, a court authorizes a single person or a small group of people to represent the interests of a larger group.

Guice’s attorneys have argued that the facts in each “slab case” against State Farm are essentially the same and should be heard together. But State Farm says the cases must be tried separately because the facts of each claim are different.

“We’re pleased with Judge Senter’s affirmation that each claim is unique and no two property owners experience the same type of loss,” State Farm spokesman Phil Supple said. “It’s only right that each claim be tried on its own merits, separately.”

A disappointed Guice said that certifying a class action may be the only way to provide legal relief to homeowners who are “too weak to forge ahead alone.”

“In the end, I’m sure that justice will prevail,” she said.

In his ruling, Senter said three recent trials for lawsuits against State Farm have taught him that “there are as many differences between the “slab cases as there are similarities” in how Katrina damaged homes.

“For this reason,” he wrote, “I do not believe there is any procedural advantage in creating a class of State Farm ‘slab cases’ that would not be offset by the factors that will ultimately require the individual treatment of these claims.”

A trial in Gulfport, Miss., for Guice’s individual lawsuit against State Farm is scheduled to start in May, but Guice said she expects it to be postponed.

During last month’s hearing, several policyholders pleaded with Senter to find a speedy way to resolve hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed against State Farm and other insurers after Katrina.

Senter has expressed strong support for using court-ordered mediation to clear a backlog of federal lawsuits over Katrina damage. He said last month that a court-ordered mediation program, which has settled at least 47 of 88 cases heard so far, has exceeded his early expectations.

The judge, however, has solicited ideas on other ways to resolve cases in a “just, speedy and inexpensive” manner.

Also, on Feb. 28, Senter held a separate hearing on the terms of a proposed settlement that calls for State Farm to pay at least $50 million to roughly 35,000 policyholders who didn’t sue the company but could have their claims reopened.

After the hearing, a team of lawyers led by Richard “Dickie” Scruggs withdrew their request for Senter to sign off on the agreement, citing a legal “stalemate” and the judge’s apparent reluctance to approve the settlement. Senter hasn’t ruled on that earlier request to approve the deal.

In the meantime, Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale announced Monday that his office has reached a separate agreement with State Farm that calls for the company to re-evaluate and possibly pay thousands of claims.

In January, Senter presided over the first jury trial for a Katrina insurance suit. He sided with policyholders Norman and Genevieve Broussard in that case, saying State Farm acted in a “grossly negligent way” by denying their claim.

Senter also ruled State Farm has the burden of proving how much damage resulted from flood water. State Farm and other insurers say their policies cover damage from wind but not rising water, including storm surge.