Articles Posted in Hurricane Insurance Verdicts

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In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Louisiana legislature set deadlines for the filing of claims for damages resulting from the hurricanes. These dates were September 1, 2007 for claims of damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina and October 1, 2007 for claims of damage resulting from Hurricane Rita. Any claims filed beyond these dates would be subject to the exception of prescription, meaning that any legal remedies stemming from such damages would be extinguished. Under certain circumstances, however, Louisiana law allows for the suspension of prescription. For members of an ongoing class action in Louisiana state court, the deadline to file individual claims based on the same damages is suspended.

The countdown for the valid filing of individual claims begins to run again when a class member elects to be excluded from the class action or is notified that he or she has been excluded from the action, or is notified that the action has been dismissed. Once the countdown starts to run again, it resumes with how much time was left before the commencement of the class action. For instance, if there were two months remaining to file an individual claim of damages at the time a class action was started, the countdown for a class member’s individual claim would resume with two months remaining upon the member’s exclusion or the dismissal of the class action. This would hold true no matter how much time had elapsed since the class action’s commencement. However, it is crucial to note that such suspension of prescription is only allowed for class actions in Louisiana state court.

In a recent Louisiana Supreme Court case, a couple in Harvey, LA filed an individual claim for property damages resulting from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita more than two years after the deadline set by the legislature. Because the couple were members of a recently dismissed class action in federal court seeking the same damages, they argued that the countdown for the filing of their individual claim had been suspended. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled, however, that only class actions filed in Louisiana state court (rather than federal class actions, or class actions in another state’s court system) could suspend the deadline for filing claims under Louisiana law. This meant that the couple’s individual claim had long expired unless they could prove membership in a class action in Louisiana state court for the same damages during that period.

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In April 2010, an offshore drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded and sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven workers died and crude oil from the well spilled into the Gulf for months after the accident. The result was a mass of litigation involving multiple defendants. In order to deal with the extensive facts and individuals involved in this case, like many other cases, the parties can appeal just one issue of the case if the lower court denies or grants a judgment on that particular issue.

Normally, a decision must be a final one in order to be appealed. That generally means that the case has concluded and the lower court has rendered a judgment. That way, the appeals court considers all of the facts involved, but can still allow the lower court to do most of the fact analysis. However, there are some occasions where an appeal on just one issue is allowed. This is known as an interlocutory appeal, and it falls under the collateral order doctrine. The collateral order doctrine assumes that some decisions are “final in effect although they do not dispose of the litigation.”

In order to use the collateral order doctrine, the lower court must have 1) conclusively determined the disputed question, 2) resolved an important issue that is completely separate from the final decision in the case, and 3) the issue must also be effectively unreviewable on appeal in a final judgment. “Effectively unreviewable” means that the court of appeals will have no way to review the decision of the lower court once the lower court makes a decision on this particular issue. Generally, if the decision could be appealed in some other way than the interlocutory appeal, then the court will not use the interlocutory appeal.

In the oil spill case, parties assumed that one worker in particular held a great deal of information because he was the BP Well Site Leader on duty aboard the rig at the time of the accident. However, the Site Leader had an undisclosed medical condition that prohibited him from testifying or answering written questions. The Site Leader explained his medical condition to the judge on two separate occasions, but did not disclose the information to the parties.

Since the parties believed that he was such a valuable witness, they really wanted to obtain information from him. As such, another judge ordered an independent doctor to examine him and ordered the Site Leader to produce his medical records to the independent doctor. The Site Leader protested because he was concerned about sharing his personal information. This order is a discovery decision, and discovery decisions are appealable after the final decision of the court based on the use of inadmissible evidence.

One of the Site Leader’s major arguments, however, was that releasing his personal medical information would cause a great deal of harm to him personally, and there is no method on appeal to reverse that type of harm. Nonetheless, the court determined that district courts can “burden litigants in ways that are only imperfectly reparable by appellate reversal of the final district court judgment.” Therefore, even though there may be harm that cannot be reversed for the Site Leader, the court will still allow the medical information to come in because the final verdict could change on appeal if the information is removed later. To use another example, the court explains that even if the information is privileged, that does not make it appropriate for an interlocutory appeal.

The court only briefly considered the rights of the Site Leader and his concern about protecting his personal information. In that discussion, they explain that they weighed the costs of sharing his information with the benefits of having his testimony at trial and determined that the benefits outweighed the costs.

As result, the court determined that it could not use the collateral order doctrine and that the interlocutory appeal was inappropriate. Therefore, the court dismissed the appeal and allowed the bulk of the case to continue in the lower court.

Civil procedure issues can be a delicate balance between protecting the case and protecting the individuals involved in the case.

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Years after Hurricane Rita, which hit in September 2005, those who have had their homes damaged are still dealing with cleaning up the wreckage and rebuilding. Litigation involving insurance companies is still particularly prominent. One couple from Lake Charles, Louisiana knows about this type of litigation all too well.

The couple had homeowners insurance through State Farm and made a claim for damage to their home as result of the storm. State Farm paid them for the damages and they began to rebuild. However, after the claims were settled, the couple found that significant damage to the home’s rafters in the attic. An adjuster came right over and paid the couple for damage to three windows. The rafters, on the other hand, were a different question. There was a separation between the center beam and the rafters that connected to the center beam to support the roof; the center beam was essential to the strength and integrity of the home’s overall structure. State Farm explained that the couple needed to have the opinion of an engineer to support their claim for damage to the rafters.

In Louisiana, like many other states, lay people are generally not allowed to offer their opinions at trial. Instead, they are supposed to supply facts and the jury or judge is supposed to provide their opinion, resulting in the outcome of the trial. The witness should not substitute their opinion for that of the factfinder. However, if the witness is certified as an expert in a particular area, then they can give their opinion to the court.

Testimony of expert witnesses is particularly useful in highly technical trials. For example, if an individual is suing for a personal injury, it may be helpful to have a doctor come in to explain the injury and state how he or she thinks the plaintiff acquired the injury. If you can only acquire the injury a certain way, then the fact finder should know that information so they can provide an accurate final verdict.

In this case, the couple had their contractor come in to testify. Their contractor built the home and testified as to his opinion of how the damage occurred. He was a valuable witness because he could tell the judge that when he built the home, the center beam and rafters were not separated as they are now. He explained that if they were separated like that, then the house would not have been up to code and the couple could not have lived there.

The couple also employed an engineer to testify at the trial regarding the cause of the split in the rafters. The engineer looked at the house after the storm and, using his experience, explained that only extremely high winds could have created that kind of damage in the time between when the house was built and shortly after Hurricane Rita hit. He also stated that the home’s structure would have continued to get worse if the attic frame was not properly restored.

State Farm argued that the contractor was not an appropriate expert because he was not trained to be an expert regarding causation of the movement in the rafters. Because he was not an engineer, he could not compute the effect of the wind speed on the house nearly as well as an engineer could. However, State Farm did not like the engineer that the couple used either. In fact, they argued, the contractor did not even use the correct wind speed when he calculated the effect of the wind, so his testimony should be entirely discredited.

The court determined that both the contractor’s and the engineer’s testimony would remain in evidence. First, it concluded that the contractor was not retained as an expert for the trial, so he did not need to be qualified as an expert. Instead, he spoke about the before and after affects regarding the rafters. Louisiana law allows witnesses who are not experts to testify about their inferences and opinions if they are “rationally based upon the perception of the witness and helpful to a clear understanding of [the] testimony or determination of the fact at issue.” In addition, the court kept the engineer’s testimony because they determined that even though he had used the incorrect wind speed in his calculations, the correct wind speed would not have changed the outcome of his opinion.

Witnesses can make or break a case, and expert witnesses are particularly important to explain technical concepts that the average person may not understand. Those technical concepts are usually essential to the case.

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A group of healthcare providers sued a number of insurance companies alleging that their worker’s compensation bills were discounted under a preferred provider agreement without notice as required by Louisiana state law. When the judge was deciding whether or not to certify the group of healthcare providers as a class, allowing them to bring one lawsuit all together instead of each having to pursue a suit individually, the insurance companies claimed the providers had no right to bring the case at all. The judge did not address the issue and certified the class. The insurers appealed the decision.

The insurers argued that healthcare providers are barred by Louisiana law from directly suing insurance companies because the law does not allow contract claims and the claim the healthcare providers brought was a contract case. The healthcare providers argued that their claim was not contractual but of a breach of a statutory duty, which is a duty created by a specific law. A party has standing, which means they are allowed to bring a case, when they have a legally protectable stake in a litigated matter. This case stems from a case against a party insured by the insurance companies. The healthcare providers settled with the insured party but retained the right to sue the insurance companies.

Louisiana law does not allow the providers to sue the insurance companies independently but they do have a right to sue the insurance companies if they have a substantive case against the insured party. The fact that the healthcare providers settled with the insured party does not automatically mean they can no longer sue the insurance companies. The appeals court decided that the healthcare providers could sue the insurance companies because their claim was a violation of a statutory duty, not a contract dispute, and because they had specifically retained their right to sue the insurance companies in their settlement agreement with the insured party.

The appeals court then went on to review whether the class certification was proper. An appeals court is always deferential to a trial court’s decision to certify a class and will only overturn the decision if there was manifest error, or the decision was obviously wrong. In order to be certified as a class the group of plaintiffs must meet these requirements: 1) The group must be so large that treating each plaintiff as an individual would be too complicated 2) The questions of law and fact in the case must be the same for all the plaintiffs 3) the plaintiffs who take the lead in the case must have claims typical of all the class members 4) the plaintiffs who take the lead, and their lawyers, must adequately and fairly represent the interests of everyone in the class. If these requirements are met the case can go forward as a class action.

The trial court found that the class representative was adequate to represent the class and the appeals court agreed. The trial and appeals court also agreed that common issues predominated over individual issues. The defendant insurance companies insured the same insured party on which the claims were based, the claim for all the providers was the same, that their bills were illegally discounted, this is definitely enough commonality and typicality for a class certification. The appeals court upheld the trial courts decision and sent the case back to the trial court to continue the case.

Even preliminary legal issues, such as standing to sue, are highly complicated and very important aspects of a case.

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The settlement in Orrill v. Louisiana Citizens Fair Plan demonstrates some of the hurdles faced by class action litigants and the benefits of having experienced class counsel. In that case, Katrina and Rita victims sought statutory penalties for their insurers’ failure to pay claims within the 30 days required by statute. The long history of the case dates to 2005, immediately after the storms first hit. The Berniard Law Firm vigorously pursued their claims past procedural roadblocks along the way to a final settlement this past January.

While class actions provide an obviously efficient way of adjudicating large controversies, the drawbacks associated with this device are equally apparent. Class actions allow courts to resolve all claims related to an occurrence in a single proceeding. This means, however, that even claims of those who do not participate must be decided. Otherwise, class members could “free ride” off the efforts of others, waiting to see whether a legal strategy or theory will succeed or fail without expending any efforts or resources. Courts have long resolved this dilemma by requiring class action plaintiffs to provide adequate notice to those who might have claims and by requiring that participants meet a series of requirements.

First, the class must consist of a sufficiently large number of claimants. Courts have not defined this “numerosity” requirement precisely; rather, a plaintiff satisfies this requirement by establishing that traditional methods of joining parties would be unreasonably difficult or expensive. Second, the claims of the class members must involve common issues. To meet this “commonality” requirement, it is not enough simply to have claims resulting from the same injury. Instead those claims must be capable of resolution in the same way. As the United States Supreme Court has stated, what is important is not the raising of common questions, but “capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers.”

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Choosing the right attorney for your lawsuit is crucial, not only for receiving the proper compensation for your damages but also to be protected by the legal representative themselves. The issue at hand for this post comes from a case heard in the Court of Appeal for the Fourth Circuit of Louisiana. The plaintiffs, Jill and Claud Brown, brought a case against their former attorney Mr. Lehman.

Mr. Lehman represented the Browns in a case to recover damages suffered from Hurricane Katrina. However, Lehman soon after withdrew from the case with the court’s permission on July 23, 2009. In the spring of the next year Mr. Lehman filed a “motion to set fees” requesting the Browns to pay him legal fees after the Browns had received a settlement in their case. Although the lower court granted Mr. Lehman a large percentage of the settlement received by the Browns, amounting to $12,300.00, the Court of Appeals reversed that decision because Mr. Lehman had withdrawn from the case and failed to first file a motion to intervene before he filed the motion to set fees. The motion to intervene in the action was deemed to be necessary by the appeals court and that was the reason for the reversal.

The case shows the unfortunate side of what can happen when individuals hire legal representation to handle their claims. The trial court’s determination of the rule about a former attorney intervening after withdrawing from a case created a tenuous situation for the Browns and anyone in the same situation, as they were forced to pay for and hire subsequent representation in order to protect themselves from their former lawyer. The Browns’ situation is one that anyone can easily finds themselves especially considering the difficulty for most people to navigate the language of the law in Louisiana.

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A recent United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit case set out an extensive definition and explanation of summary judgment. Summary judgment occurs when there are “no genuine dispute[s] as to any material fact.” That is, both parties agree with all of the facts that are used to determine the case. A “material fact” is one that could affect the overall outcome of the case based on the applicable law. When summary judgments are appealed, the appeals court uses a de novo standard–they look at all the facts and apply the same standards as the lower court would. They examine the facts “in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” However, the court will not just accept unsubstantiated allegations in favor of the nonmoving party; the claims have to have some support. The nonmoving party is the party that won summary judgment in the lower court, so the moving party is the party that is contesting the summary judgment.

When examining a summary judgment on appeal, the moving party has the burden of proving that summary judgment is inappropriate. In order to do that, the moving party must show that there is some dispute regarding a material fact. The burden is somewhat light if the moving party would not have the burden if the case went to trial. Instead, the moving party would only have to show, “that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case” instead of proving that the evidence may weigh in the moving party’s favor. Once the moving party has proven their burden, then the nonmoving party will take the burden and must counter the moving party’s arguments.

In the Fifth Circuit case, a homeowner alleged that Hurricane Ike caused damage to his roof that his insurance company should cover. His roof was leaking and he pointed out that the wind likely damaged his roof, causing water leaks. State Farm, his insurance company, completed an evaluation of the roof and determined that he was missing four shingles, had four damaged ridge caps and had acquired one fresh interior water spot. State Farm concluded that most of the damage that the plaintiff complained of was actually damage that could have only occurred over several years due to deterioration or faulty workmanship when the roof was installed. The State Farm insurance policy did not cover these two latter instances, but provided reimbursement for the damaged shingles, ridge caps, and the new water spot in the ceiling. State Farm awarded roughly $450.00.

The plaintiff was very unhappy with this result and conducted damage evaluations of its own, each of which concluded that the damage was considerably higher than State Farm provided. However, these damage reports did not mention how the damage was caused; they just explained how much it would cost to fix the water damage as a whole. State Farm also conducted damage evaluations that separated any damage likely caused by Hurricane Ike and damage caused by leaking over time. Their evaluations were consistent with what they already awarded the plaintiff.

Based on the various evaluations, the lower court granted summary judgment for State Farm and the Fifth Circuit affirmed that decision. The Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiff, as the moving party, could not meet his burden to override the summary judgment determination. The Court found that the evaluations as to any damage that Hurricane Ike may have caused were extremely important in this case. Since the only wind damage would have been related to the missing shingles, damaged ridge caps, and small water spot, and State Farm already paid for that, the Court found no reason to override the summary judgment.

Once summary judgment has been awarded, it is somewhat difficult to overcome on appeal.

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The Louisiana Supreme Court has recently undertaken a case deciding whether arbitration clauses in attorney-client retainer agreements are appropriate. In the past, Louisiana has favored the enforcement of arbitration clauses in written contracts. Arbitration avoids taking a case to trial and is a thrifty and efficient way to conduct the resolution of disputes outside of the courts. During arbitration, each party refers its dispute to an arbitrator, who then imposes a decision that is legally binding for both sides. However, Louisiana law also imposes a fiduciary duty requiring attorneys to act with the utmost fidelity and forthrightness in their dealings with clients and any contractual clause, which may limit the client’s rights against the attorney is subject to the upmost scrutiny.

According to the Louisiana Supreme Court in Hodges v. Reasonover, there is no per se rule against such binding arbitration clauses, provided that they are fair and reasonable to the client. In Hodges v. Reasonover, Jacqueline Hodges, the founder, sole shareholder, and CEO of Med-Data Management, Inc., hired Kirk Reasonover of the law firm of Reasonover & Olinde to sue a company known as MedAssets, Inc. in federal court in Atlanta, Georgia. In the retainer agreement between Hodges and Reasonover there was an arbitration clause, which essentially provided that any dispute shall be submitted to arbitration in New Orleans, Louisiana and that such arbitration shall be submitted to the American Arbitration Association (AAA).

Hodges was ultimately unsuccessful on her suit against MedAssets, Inc., which led her to file suit for legal malpractice against Reasonover. According to the Louisiana Supreme Court, Courts must closely scrutinize attorney-client agreements for signs of unfairness or overreaching by the attorney. Further, Louisiana Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(h)(1) prohibits a lawyer from “prospectively limiting the lawyer’s liability to a client for malpractice unless the client is independently represented in making the agreement.”

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You have just been involved in a car accident. Someone else was driving, and you bring suit against them and several insurance companies that are involved. But who has the burden of proof to prove how much you should be able to recover from the insurance companies? In Louisiana, that burden is on the plaintiff. The plaintiff, when seeking a declaration of coverage under an insurance policy, has to prove that his or her claims are covered under the policy coverage and also has to establish all essential facts in order to recover.

How would this play out? Well, recently, this exact situation played out in Louisiana. A couple was riding in a car driven by another man. The man driving had rented the car from Houston, Texas, but the case was tried in Louisiana. At some point while driving the couple, the man lost control of the vehicle and ended up flipping the car twice. The couple suffered severe injuries from the accident and then filed suit.

Not only did the plaintiffs (the couple) file suit against the man driving, but they also filed suit against several insurance companies involved. Before actually bringing the case to trial, the couple tried to settle the case with a couple of the insurance companies, and the couple received checks in the full amount of the coverage under those insurance companies. However, it was not clear whether or not this was a full recovery. The plaintiffs also wanted to receive payment from the insurance company from the uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (UM coverage). During the time the parties were trying to decide if this was a complete settlement or not, the plaintiffs’ attorney went ahead and gave his clients the check. The defendants then filed a motion for summary judgment, stating that UM insurance coverage was not available. After several motions and cross motions, the trial court decided that UM coverage was not available to the plaintiffs and granted the motion of summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

When this case was brought to the appellate court, the court analyzed the case de novo (or as if the trial court had not already tried the case) and decided to affirm the trial court’s ruling. Why did they affirm the trial court’s ruling? This is primarily because the plaintiff has the burden of proving what he or she is owed under the insurance policy, and the plaintiffs in this case could not prove that they should be able to recover under UM coverage.

The reason that the plaintiffs could not prove that they should be able to recover under UM coverage is because of the plain language of the insurance coverage policy. Normally, summary judgment should only be granted if there is no reasonable interpretation of the policy, supported by evidence and the facts of the case, that would support granting coverage. This seems like a pretty lenient standard for the plaintiffs, but it still requires that the plaintiffs prove that there is a reasonable interpretation of the policy that does allow them to recover in the manner that they are seeking. And in this case there was not.

In the language of the policy, several clear definitions were given, and as long as the policy wording is clear, then the agreement has to be enforced as it is written. In this case, the policy language stated that in order to recover under UM coverage, the vehicle cannot be available for regular use. However, in this case, the rented vehicle was clearly available for regular use during the rental period, and the vehicle, therefore, could not be classified as underinsured. So the plaintiffs were not entitled to recover any more than they already had.

If you have been involved in a car accident, you want to make sure that you claim and recover the proper amount that is available to you under the various insurance policies involved in the case.

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The Federal National Flood Insurance Program (“NFIP”) is a federal program that allows homeowners to protect against flooding because most homeowners insurance does not cover flooding (You can check out their website here). It is offered to homeowners, renters and some business owners. The federal government works with private insurance companies to encourage them to offer insurance. The government sets a standard rate and then the insurance is actually through the private insurance company, but involves the federal government to a great degree. The federal government underwrites, or supports the insurance company, but the private insurance company does all of the related administrative tasks.

Because of the federal government’s involvement, when there are issues with the insurance company, you must follow unique litigation paths in order to recover for any damages in many occasions. For example, the federal government will normally cover any litigation costs for the private insurance company. As such, some procedures that would normally be acceptable at the state level may not be allowed in the federal court.

A case in Mississippi that was appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals helps explain these differences. In that case, Grissom, the insured individual, had insurance under the NFIP through Liberty Mutual. He was eligible for a preferred risk insurance policy, but did not know he was eligible. After Hurricane Katrina, he argued that he would have purchased the preferred risk insurance policy if he had known about his eligibility.

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