Judges Refuses to Toss Testimony About Katrina’s Winds

July 14, 2006

A judge on Thursday refused to throw out an engineer’s testimony that Hurricane Katrina’s winds caused much of the damage to the home of Mississippi couple suing Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. for denying most of the couple’s claim.

Nationwide attorney Dan Attridge argued that structural engineer Peter de la Mora, one of several expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in the groundbreaking Katrina insurance case, didn’t use “reliable principles and methods” in assessing damage to the Pascagoula home of Paul and Julie Leonard.

“He just got the facts completely wrong,” Attridge said.
U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr., who is hearing the case without a jury, rejected the motion to throw out de la Mora’s testimony, although the judge said, “Granted, it’s a bit confusing as to what expertise he used.”

The couple’s case is the first trial for the hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed by Gulf Coast homeowners challenging insurance companies over the wind-versus-water issue.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys hope a ruling in the Leonards’ favor would pressure insurance companies to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to people whose claims have been rejected.

Nationwide, which paid the Leonards about $1,600, concluded that nearly all the damage to the couple’s home was from “storm surge,” wind-driven water from the Mississippi Sound, and therefore wasn’t covered by their homeowner’s policy.

Zach Scruggs, one of the Leonards’ attorneys, said testimony from de la Mora and another witness for the plaintiffs, insurance adjuster Brian Persson, shows that wind was responsible for roughly half of the $130,000 in damage to the couple’s house.

Nationwide attorneys “didn’t even try to get into the principles and methods he used,” Scruggs said. “They’re just making these blanket accusations.”

Attridge questioned de la Mora’s qualifications and credibility, noting that this is the first time he has testified in a case involving hurricane damage.

“He’s just making observations any good contractor could make,” Attridge said.

De la Mora also has twice been reprimanded by the Texas Board of Professional Engineers for not following “generally accepted engineering practices,” Attridge said.

De la Mora conceded during cross-examination that he changed his original report on the Leonards’ home, removing dozens of entries for damage that he initially attributed to Katrina’s wind.

“We’ve never claimed the house was totally destroyed by wind,” Scruggs later said outside the courtroom.

Persson, an insurance adjuster who has worked for Allstate Insurance Co., took the stand Thursday afternoon, possibly the last witness to testify for the Leonards before Nationwide begins presenting its case.

In his testimony, Persson estimated that $47,365 of the $130,253 in structural damage to the Leonards’ home was the result of wind damage.

Scruggs, and his father, Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, represent about 3,000 policyholders on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The firm also has filed lawsuits against other insurers, including Allstate Insurance Co., Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., State Farm Insurance Cos. and United Services Automobile Association.

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