Wind or Water? Victims Got Conflicting Info on What Caused Damage

April 13, 2007

A man who sued Allstate Insurance Co. after losing his home to Hurricane Katrina lashed out April 11 at the insurance industry’s position that damage from a hurricane’s storm surge is excluded from homeowner policies.

“It’s a hurricane. It’s not rocket science. Hurricanes are wind and water. To exclude one is ridiculous,” Robert Weiss said on the witness stand, his voice rising.

It was the third day of a federal civil trial in the lawsuit Weiss and his wife, Merryl, filed against Allstate.

Earlier, there was testimony that the couple had been given conflicting explanations from engineers about whether Hurricane Katrina’s wind or water demolished their home.

James Neva, an engineer who inspected the Weisses’ Slidell home, initially told the couple that he believed a hurricane-spawned tornado destroyed the house.

But Neva, who worked for Rimkus Consulting Group, later backed away from that conclusion and deferred to another Rimkus engineer who wrote the final report on the Weisses’ home. The other engineer, Craig Rogers, concluded that Katrina’s storm surge was responsible for the majority of the damage.

“My job was to gather information. His job was to write the report,” Neva said of Rogers in videotaped testimony that was played for jurors hearing the Weisses’ lawsuit against Allstate.

Allstate and other insurers say their homeowner policies cover damage from a hurricane’s wind but not its rising water, including wind-driven surge.

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 couple claims Allstate owes them hundreds of thousands of dollars more under the latter policy.

Neva said he filed a report with Rimkus that blamed Katrina’s wind for most of the damage to the Weisses’ home, but Rogers later persuaded him to change his conclusions. Rogers had more experience on disaster claims, Neva said, noting that he didn’t find any hard evidence of a tornado strike in the area.

“I didn’t feel pressure that I had to agree with any of the engineers if they came up with a different conclusion than I had,” Neva testified.

Previously, Rogers acknowledged that he didn’t inspect the remnants of the Weisses’ home before he wrote his report. Instead, he relied on evidence gathered by Neva and another Rimkus engineer who visited the property – a practice that Rogers described as “common.”

During his turn on the stand, Weiss disputed some of the Rimkus report’s conclusions and said he didn’t think it was fair for Allstate to rely on an engineer who had not visited his property before issuing the report.

At one point, his voice wavered as he described seeing his storm-shattered property for the first time. He said his legal dispute with the insurance company has taken a toll on he and his wife, leaving him anxiety-ridden and depressed.

Filing a lawsuit, he added, was his “only option.”

“Do you want to be here?” his lawyer, Richard Trahant, asked.

“Absolutely not,” Weiss said.

Neva, who wasn’t a licensed engineer in Louisiana, said he inspected about 125 storm damaged properties on the Gulf Coast. The Weisses’ weren’t given a copy of the report he submitted to Rimkus before Rogers rewrote it.

Neva was employed by Pacific International Engineering, a consulting firm based in Washington state. Rimkus hired Pacific to help the company inspect Allstate policyholders’ homes.

The Weisses are among hundreds of homeowners in Louisiana and Mississippi who have sued their insurers for refusing to pay for Katrina damage.

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