Judge Orders Lawyer in Louisiana Citizens Insurance Case Jailed

December 17, 2008

A lawyer was led out of a New Orleans court in handcuffs Dec. 15 after an altercation with another attorney on the rival side of a hurricane insurance case.

A state judge in New Orleans held attorney J. Robert Ates in contempt of court and ordered him jailed for 24 hours, a sentence that Ates’ colleagues were challenging.

Ates is accused of attacking attorney Madro Bandaries before a hearing on a proposed $35 million settlement of a class-action case against Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run insurer of last resort. Ates is part of a legal team challenging the fairness of the settlement that Bandaries helped broker.

Bandaries claims Ates approached him before the start of the hearing, grabbed him by his shirt and pushed him onto the floor. Bandaries said Ates made a snide remark about his case.

“It was out of nowhere. That’s what makes it so bizarre,” Bandaries said. “You don’t expect this in a courtroom.”

Lawyers working with Ates accuse Bandaries of initiating the physical confrontation by grabbing Ates’ tie. Ates later told Judge Kern Reese his side of the story, but the judge imposed the jail sentence and ordered him to pay a $100 fine

Later, Ates’ colleagues asked the state’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal to review Reese’s sentence and set bond so Ates could be released. The appeals court didn’t immediately rule on the request.

Ates, an adjunct professor at Tulane University Law School, has been practicing law in Louisiana for 40 years and “enjoys an outstanding reputation,” his colleagues wrote in a petition filed in the 4th Circuit.

After court officers led Ates away in handcuffs, Reese presided over a hearing designed to determine whether the proposed settlement is fair.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, plaintiffs lawyers filed several class-action suits that accused Citizens of failing to resolve claims in a timely fashion. One of those cases – separate from the one before Reese – is awaiting trial in suburban Jefferson Parish.

Bandaries said thousands of policyholders would be entitled to $1,000 payments under the terms of the proposed settlement.

Reese heard testimony from Louisiana Insurance Commissioner James Donelon, who said Citizens set up a “zone adjustment process” to handle more than $1 billion in claims after the 2005 storms. Donelon said he believes the proposed settlement fairly compensates policyholders who endured delays in getting claims resolved.

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