1st Federal Katrina Insurance Trial Under Way in La.

February 13, 2007

The first trial for one of the several thousand lawsuits that Louisiana homeowners filed against their insurers in federal court after Hurricane Katrina began Feb. 12 with the jury selection and opening statements.

In their lawsuit against Allstate Indemnity Co., Lawrence Tomlinson and his wife, Elizabeth, accuse the Northbrook, Ill.-based company of bad faith, saying it failed to properly or promptly adjust their claim after the August 2005 storm. The couple also claims the company underpaid them for wind damage.

Allstate, in turn, disputes the extent of the wind damage to the Tomlinsons’ home in Marrero and accuses the couple of misrepresenting parts of their claim.

Tulane Law School professor Ed Sherman said a victory for the Tomlinsons could embolden other homeowners to sue their insurers, but he downplayed the possible legal implications for the roughly 4,000 other Katrina lawsuits awaiting trials here in federal court.

“These are very personal, individual issues,” he said.

The Tomlinsons are challenging the manner in which Allstate adjusted and paid their claim, but not how the company interpreted its policy terms. In Mississippi, meanwhile, hundreds of homeowners have filed similar lawsuits challenging the insurance companies’ refusal to pay for damage from Katrina’s storm surge.

The companies say their policies cover damage from a hurricane’s wind but not rising water, including wind-driven surge. This wind versus water debate – a central issue for many of the roughly 350 federal lawsuits still pending in Mississippi – is not a factor in the Tomlinsons’ case because their home did not flood.

A recent string of legal milestones for Katrina insurance cases in Mississippi has largely overshadowed the court battles between homeowners and insurers in Louisiana.

A jury last month awarded $2.5 million in punitive damages to a Biloxi, Mississippi, couple who sued State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. for denying their claim. A judge later reduced that award to $1 million but concluded the company acted in a “grossly negligent way.”

State Farm also agreed last month to pay about $80 million to settle lawsuits by 640 policyholders in Mississippi and pay at least an additional $50 million to thousands of policyholders who did not sue the company.

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