Miss. Lawsuit Alleges Engineer Altered Katrina Damage Report

March 22, 2006

An engineering company altered a report to eliminate the significant role wind played in severely damaging the home of an elderly Gulfport, Mississippi couple during Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, a lawsuit claims.

The suit, which represents only one side of the legal argument, ask a Chancery Court judge to order the original report restored and award $5 million in damages.

The litigation claims Hubert W. Smith and his wife, Joyce, used retirement savings to repair their home after their insurer paid $16,000 on a policy with a total of $540,000 in coverage.

The Merlin Law Group filed the lawsuit on March 17.

Private insurance companies are covering only wind damage from Katrina because their policies generally exclude coverage for damage caused by wind-driven water.

The local engineer who completed the Smiths’ report verified it had been altered and his signature forged, according to the lawsuit and other records obtained by the attorney who filed the suit, William B. Weatherly.

“This to me proves one of my deepest, deepest fears, which is that there’s a concerted effort to cheat people,” Weatherly said Friday.

Weatherly has turned over his information to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who is investigating possible fraud by insurance companies in handling Katrina claims.

Hood has been unwilling to discuss details of the investigation, but Weatherly said: “Some of this involves secret grand jury proceedings. It’s my observation that this is being treated very seriously by (Hood’s) office.”

The Smiths are suing Rimkus Consulting Group Inc., which completed the engineering report for their insurance adjuster. Rimkus engineer Thomas E. Heifner, who signed off on the report, also is named in the lawsuit, along with unknown persons who may have been involved.

Weatherly said he has no evidence the Smiths’ insurer, Meritplan, or the company adjusting its claims, CGI Adjusters Inc., was involved in manipulating the engineering report.

Neither Meritplan nor CGI is named in the lawsuit. Calls to Rimkus and Heifner seeking their comments were not returned.

The original report concluded the wind had structurally damaged the house. But the second report downplays wind damage and adds references to “storm surge.”

Meanwhile, records from State Farm Insurance Co., which has the largest share of Mississippi’s homeowner’s insurance business, have been subpoenaed by a grand jury, the company confirmed Friday. The subpoena was served on the State Farm Catastrophe Office in Biloxi.

State Farm spokesman Phil Supple said he is not sure why the company’s records were subpoenaed or for what investigation, but that the company would comply with the subpoena.

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