With 1,100 Katrina Lawsuits, Court Schedule Stretches into 2008

October 20, 2006

Federal court officials say trial dates have been set for 145 Hurricane Katrina-related insurance cases during 2007.

Court officials said a similar number could be scheduled for sometime later in 2007 and in 2008.

The first trials come in January, the U.S. District Court said in documents provided to The Sun Herald newspaper.

Overall, the court has 1,100 Katrina lawsuits filed against insurance companies.

Three courtrooms will be used for the cases. U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. will be joined in hearing the cases by other visiting judges from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

In August, Senter wrote 230 attorneys, asking for suggestions to resolve as many cases as possible over the next 12 months. As a result, the court set up an experimental mediation program involving 23 cases randomly selected. Of 17 cases sent to mediation, the court reported that a little more than 40 percent were settled.

Some litigants also are voluntarily entering into mediation at the federal courthouse in Gulfport.

Attorney Joe Sam Owen of Gulfport, who represents policyholders in Katrina cases, said four of his firm’s federal lawsuits have been resolved, either through voluntary or court-ordered mediation.

The Mississippi Department of Insurance Department also offers a mediation program. It is for policyholders who have not yet resorted to legal action against their insurers.

Owen said both parties feel a greater sense of responsibility to negotiate when the court is overseeing the process. Also, the court mediation is more formal, with both parties represented by attorneys.

“The court has determined this to be a worthy program and, therefore, plans to order another group of 100 cases into mediation soon,” the court said in its statement to the newspaper.

Cases not settled through mediation are set for trial, but pretrial settlement conferences are held in each federal case with the expectation that some will be resolved outside a courtroom.

It is unclear how the federal court’s case schedule could be affected if Senter grants a motion from one of the insurers being sued, State Farm, to have several cases moved to north Mississippi. State Farm maintains coverage by the local media will prevent the company from getting a fair trial on the coast.

Greg Copeland, a Jackson attorney who represents insurance companies, said Senter has already ruled that the water exclusion in several policies is valid and relieves insurers in those cases of covering damage from storm surge.

“I think Judge Senter has done a real good job in trying to write some opinions that establish his view of the law,” Copeland said. “That narrows the issues in a lot of cases.

“He’s trying to come up with solutions, and I applaud him for that, but the reality is we have a court system that’s been developing since the 1600s. Courts have always tried to be efficient, but sometimes it’s hard to reinvent a wheel that’s been worked on for so many years.”

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