Jury selected for homeowner’s Katrina lawsuit against Allstate

Published 3:26 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Allstate Insurance Co. owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Louisiana couple who lost their home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the couple’s lawyer told an eight-member federal jury Monday.

Acknowledging that Robert and Merryl Weiss have already received more than $350,000 in insurance payments, attorney Richard Trahant opened arguments in the Weisses’ lawsuit against Allstate by telling the jury Allstate owes a lot more.

“The purpose of insurance is to make people whole. My clients have not even been made half,” Trahant said.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The Weiss lawsuit is believed to be only the second homeowners’ suit over Katrina damage to be tried in a Louisiana federal court.

At issue in this and other cases is whether damage was caused by wind or storm flooding. In Monday’s arguments opening the Weiss case, each side accused the other of misrepresentation.

Saying testimony would “shatter everything you think about that Good Hands logo,” Trahant said Allstate misrepresented part of the Weisses’ claim to the federal flood insurance program, planning for the federal program to pick up a substantial portion of the cost.

Allstate lawyer Judy Barrasso argued that it was the Weisses who misrepresented their claim. She touched on allegations already made in court papers that the couple demanded that the company pay them at least $34,000 for a boathouse that Allstate says wasn’t located on the insured property when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005.

Barrasso also questioned why the couple accepted flood insurance money — estimated in court papers at around $350,000 — if they thought their damage was caused by wind.

“If that was a mistake, wouldn’t they tell somebody?” Barrasso asked.

The couple’s insurance agent, David Martin, was among to take the stand Monday. He testified that he doesn’t have any reason to suspect that the Weisses misrepresented their claim.

“In fact, you still consider them a pretty good risk, don’t you?,” Trahant asked.

“Yes sir,” Martin responded.

The jury of four men and four women was seated Monday morning.

The Weisses’ blame Katrina’s winds and possibly a storm-spawned tornado for demolishing their home in Slidell, northeast of New Orleans. But Allstate concluded that the hurricane’s storm surge was responsible for most of the damage.

The couple had a federal flood insurance policy and a separate Allstate homeowner’s policy with limits of $343,000 for the dwelling and $240,100 for personal property.

Allstate paid the Weisses $350,000 for coverage under their flood policy, which is funded through the federal flood insurance program, but only $29,483 for structural damage to their home and $14,787 for additional living expenses under their homeowner policy.

The Weisses, however, say at least two of their neighbors were paid the full limits of their Allstate policies after Katrina destroyed their homes. The couple accuses Allstate of bad faith for not paying their own claim in full.

In court papers, Barrasso accuses the couple of misrepresenting their claim by demanding that the company pay them at least $34,000 for the boathouse.

Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate used the same defense tactic in February, during the first federal trial for a Louisiana homeowner’s Katrina insurance suit. That trial ended abruptly when the plaintiffs dropped their lawsuit amid allegations they misrepresented their claim.

The Weisses say an Allstate adjuster told them in October 2005 that Katrina’s winds destroyed their waterfront home on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain before storm surge washed away its remnants. Months later, however, the couple received a report from Allstate-contracted engineers that blamed storm surge for the home’s destruction.

Rimkus Consulting Group. Inc. prepared the engineering report on the Weisses’ home. Trahant accused Rimkus of altering reports on storm-damaged homes so that claims could be denied and the company could generate more business with insurers.

“Rimkus engaged in a pattern of doing this,” Trahant said Thursday during a pretrial hearing before U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance.