Articles Posted in FEMA

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.

Licensed attorneys in New Orleans were asked which attorney they would recommend to residents in the New Orleans area. Attorney Jeffrey Berniard, of the New Orleans-based Berniard Law Firm, LLC, was named one of the best mass litigation and class action attorneys in New Orleans in the November 2012 issue of the magazine. Propelled into success by holding insurance companies accountable in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Berniard has built the Berniard Law Firm into one of the premiere personal injury law practices in not only New Orleans, but the entire state of Louisiana. Since Hurricane Katrina, Berniard Law Firm has focused on insurance disputes and class action litigation.

Jeffrey Berniard has been involved in several high-profile cases, solidifying his expertise in complex high risk litigation. He worked on the highly publicized Deep Water Horizon oil rig case in the Gulf Coast, representing a very large group of individuals affected by the sinking oil rig. In 2008, Berniard Law Firm secured a $35 million dollar settlement for a class of 70,000 members seeking bad faith penalties for tardy payments by a Louisiana insurance company in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. In 2009, the Berniard Law Firm participated in five class actions against insurance companies and corporations. In the process of these major claims, the firm also helped many residents of the Gulf Coast with their personal injury concerns, insurance claims and business disputes.

– What is Mass Tort Litigation? –

The state of Louisiana, like many other states, has very specific requirements that the judicial branch uses to help interpret contracts when the parties are in dispute. Generally, the court likes to stay out of contracts because the right to contract without interference from the government is something that the American society greatly cherishes. The ability to contract is a basic fundamental right that is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The court will usually only interfere if there is a dispute or if the contract was in some way illegal. Therefore, it is very important to have a contract that is well written and that all parties understand completely.

If the court has to step in to work with a contract, then it will follow a few select guidelines. The ultimate goal of the court is to determine the common intent of the parties and enforce the contract in that way. In order to determine the intent, the court will look to the contract itself. In contracts that include terms of art or very technical requirements, the court will look to the common use of the word within that trade. For example, some trades include quantity information that is always larger than actually stated; think of a “baker’s dozen.” Even though twelve is technically considered a dozen, a contract between bakers may actually mean thirteen. This notion disregards the fact that in any other contract that is not between bakers, a dozen would equal twelve.

The court will also consider the contract in its entirety, not just a few sections or a single disputed term. It will determine what outcome is practical for both parties and technical terms will be given their technical meaning. In addition, if a word has more than one meaning, then the court will defer to the meaning that will carry out the goal of the contract. Consider a simple example. If a grocery store contracts to receive bananas and they receive plastic bananas instead of real bananas, the court will likely conclude that the other party providing the plastic bananas was at fault because the definition of a banana is commonly a consumable food, especially if it is going to be sold at a grocery store. The contract did not say that the grocery store wanted edible bananas, but the court will assume this information because the outcome becomes ridiculous without this assumption.

The court will generally try to stay within the language of the contract when attempting to resolve disputes. When the contract is clear and doesn’t lead to ridiculous consequences, then external evidence provided by the parties to show an alternative intent cannot be considered. The contract’s wording is therefore very important. However, if the contract is not clear or is ridiculous, then the court can consider some outside evidence in order to determine the common intent of the parties. In our banana example, if the grocery store has always ordered real bananas from this seller and has never requested plastic bananas from this seller, then that information could be considered in the court’s analysis.

The court has a means to determine whether the meaning of the contract is clear or not. Obviously if a term or issue is missing from the contract entirely, then the court will most likely deem the issue to be unclear or ambiguous. In addition, the court will also reason that an issue is ambiguous when “the language used in the contract is uncertain or is fairly susceptible to more than one interpretation.” If this is the case, then the outside evidence can be used to determine what the intent of both parties actually is.

A well written contract will convey the intention of both parties and will define all of its questionable terms so that there is no contention in the future. Sometimes, one party does not think a term in unclear when it actually is, so a conflict will arise. Competent attorneys are needed to create a well written contract and deal with conflict.

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A summary judgment is rendered when a trial court decides that there are no genuine issues of material fact that need to be determined. “Manifestly erroneous” is the high standard under which summary judgments are reversed on appeal. Summary judgments are cheaper and less time consuming than full blown trials; they are a means toward the end of judicial expediency, a goal that becomes increasingly important to our judicial system over time. Despite the importance of this procedural device, many cases do not call for summary judgment. Sometimes trial courts grant full or partial summary judgments in error and are reversed. That is what occurred in the case of Jagneux v. Frohn, which you can read here.

The defendants in this case convinced the trial court that no issues of fact existed that required litigating. Their legal journey was not over though due to the plaintiff’s appeal. The court of appeals applied the standard promulgated by the Louisiana Supreme Court. This Louisiana Supreme Court’s standard initially places the burden of proof on the party that is moving for a summary judgment. The moving party must prove that one or more elements of the adverse party’s claim or defense lacks any factual support on the record so far. The opposing party is then granted an opportunity to prove that there have been facts alleged that support that party’s position. At the time of summary judgment the record is sparse so a granting of summary judgment represents a finding by the court that no facts supporting a particular party’s, in this case the plaintiff’s, position.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision in this case because it found that the issue of whether Mrs. Kling, a defendant in this case, was the driver of the white SUV at the time that it, at least partially, caused the accident at issue in this case. Because there was conflicting evidence about where Mrs. Kling was and whether or not she was actually in control of the car at the time of the accident, summary judgment was not the right choice in this case. The trial court is not to weigh the merits of the case when addressing summary judgment. Summary judgment is only appropriate in cases where no potentially meritorious case is presented by one of the parties.

In insurance, an assignment is the transfer of legal rights under an insurance policy to another party. The legality of assignments became a major issue in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. During this period, the federal government, in an effort to aid rebuilding efforts, issued money through the Road Home program to homeowners who held underinsured properties. In exchange, these homeowners were required to assign their rights to insurance claims under their policies to the the state of Louisiana. The purpose of this assignment was to prevent homeowners from fraudulently receiving duplicate payments. However, the program incentivized insurance companies to estimate damages too low, which in turn forced homeowners to take the higher amount offered through the Road Home program.

The shortfall created within the Road Home program forced the state of Louisiana to bring suit against insurance companies through the policy rights assigned to the state by homeowners. In essence, the state sought to recoup actual insurance claim damages that the homeowners were rightfully owed had they not opted into the Road Home program. Though most, if not all, of the homeowner insurance policy contracts contained an anti-assignment clause, the state maintained that it had the right to post-loss assignment. Therefore, it is critical to distinguish between a pre-loss assignment and a post-loss assignment.

A pre-loss assignment occurs when one transfers a legal right under an insurance policy to another before the injury or loss occurs. An example of a type of pre-loss assignment is found in cases when life insurance is assigned to a bank as collateral for a loan. Here, the assignment has occurred before the loss, in this case the death of the original policy holder, and any benefits that accrue at the time of death are used to repay the bank first. These types of assignments typically require consent from the insurer, but are usually barred by anti-assignment clauses.

A post-loss assignment, on the other hand, is the transfer of a legal right under an insurance policy to another party after the injury or loss occurs. Post-loss assignments frequently give the third party transferee the ability to file a claim against the insurance company for any loss accrued by the original policy holder. Many insurance companies try to block such assignments through broad anti-assignment clauses found in policy contracts. Such clauses were found in most Katrina and Rita policies, and insurance companies pointed to these sections in an attempt to avoid paying actual damage costs homeowners thought they rightfully assigned to the state.

While national jurisprudence holds that pre-loss anti-assignment clauses are valid in favor of contract law and public policy, anti-assignment clauses related to post-loss assignments are held to be invalid. The reasoning behind this difference primarily lies with public policy considerations. A pre-loss assignment, for example, may increase the risk beyond the point that the insurance company had originally contracted for and with a party the insurance company had not originally contracted with. A post-loss assignment, on the other hand, simply assigns an accrued right to payment after a loss has already occurred. There is no change in risk as the loss has already occurred, and since payment is to be made it matters none to whom the payment is made.
The Supreme Court of Louisiana holds that such public policy concerns are better suited for the legislature. However, the Court does state that clauses prohibiting post-loss assignment must be written in clear and unambiguous language. If the language in the policy contract is unclear, then, in accordance with laws regarding contracts of adhesion, the language will be construed against the insurance company and in favor of the insured. If you have entered into a contract with an insurance company and are looking to assign your rights under the policy to a third party, turn to the language in the contract itself. Though there is not specific set of words or test used to determine “clear and unambiguous,” your own judgment is a good starting point in determining whether or not you have the right to assignment.

Though your own judgment is an excellent place to start, insurance law is very complicated and is best suited for a practicing attorney.

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Insurance policies routinely include provisions that are intended to limit the scope of the insurer’s coverage in the event of a claim by the policyholder. For instance, most homeowner’s insurance policies exclude coverage for fire damage that results from the policyholder’s deliberate arson. Commercial premises insurance policies, which commonly also include coverage for loss of business income, can carry similar limitations. The recent case of Berk-Cohen Associates, L.L.C. v. Landmark American Insurance Company in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit provides an instructive example of how insurance policies are “construed using the general rules of interpretation of contracts” by the courts.

Berk-Cohen Associates, L.L.C., as the owner of the Forest Isle Apartments in New Orleans, maintained an insurance policy to cover the complex with the Landmark American Insurance Company. The policy covered property damage but specifically did not cover losses at Forest Isle “caused directly or indirectly by Flood.” In the case of a covered cause of loss, such as wind damage or fire, the policy insured Berk-Cohen against both the property damage and the resulting lost business income. However, the scope of the income protection excluded any income that would have been earned directly as a consequence of any “favorable business conditions caused by the impact of the Covered Cause of Loss on customers or on other businesses.” In other words, Berk-Cohen could not profit by a widespread calamity that was also the source of a property damage claims. Forest Isle suffered a series of misfortunes, including a tornado, a vehicle strike, and–most significant–damage from Hurricane Katrina. Following the hurricane, Landmark compensated Berk-Cohen for damages caused by wind but not flood. Concerning Berk-Cohen’s claim for lost business income, Landmark argued that it was not responsible for the increased rents that resulted from the extensive flooding around the city because flood damage was excluded from the policy. Accordingly, Landmark “declined to increase its calculation of lost business income to the extent that any foregone income arose from flooding.” Berk-Cohen initiated litigation and, following a bench trial, the district court held that, notwithstanding the flood damage exclusion in the policy, Landmark should have considered the business conditions attributable to flooding in other buildings when computing the business income that Berk-Cohen lost as a result of the wind damage to Forest Isle. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s opinion. It noted that the “Covered Cause of Loss” that gave rise to Berk-Choen’s property damage claim was wind. Consequently, the policy language prohibited Berk-Cohen from recovering for lost business income as a result of wind damage suffered by customers or other competing businesses. But, “any increase in customers’ demand or reduction in competitors’ supply due to flooding at other properties is a permissible factor in calculating lost business income.” (Emphasis supplied.) The court refused to permit Landmark to exclude coverage for flood damage by the policy language while at the same time invoking the same source of damage to reduce Berk-Cohen’s business income recovery. To do so would “extend[] the flood exclusion beyond its function,” since the policy specifically permits the income calculation to consider “favorable business conditions.” Accordingly, the court “decline[d] to use a limitation on coverage”–that is, flooding–“to alter the calculation of damages for a covered loss”–the lost income. The Fifth Circuit concluded that the “policy … excludes coverage for flood damages at the Forest Isle property. The flood exclusion does not, however, prevent Berk-Cohen from recovering lost business income due to the favorable business conditions arising from flood damage to other buildings.”

This case demonstrates that applying the “normal cannons of contract interpretation” can work to the benefit of the insured. As with any contract, the insurance company is bound by the plain meaning of the policy language, even if it means that excluding coverage for one claim will open the door to liability for another. The lesson here is that a knowledgeable and experienced attorney is invaluable to anyone who is involved in a dispute over insurance coverage.

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As many Gulf Coast residents unfortunately know, standard homeowner’s insurance policies do not include coverage for flooding. In order to assist property owners in Louisiana and other states in protecting themselves against floods from hurricanes, tropical storms, and other severe weather, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) in 1968. NFIP offers flood insurance to homeowners, renters, and commercial property owners in communities that participate in the NFIP. In order for a community to be eligible to participate, it must agree to adopt and enforce certain building standards that are designed to reduce the risk of flood damage. According to the NFIP, flood damage is reduced by nearly $1 billion each year as a result of the floodplain management standards implemented by these communities. Also, structures that are built to NFIP standards experience approximately 80 percent less damage annually than those not built to the standards. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manages the administrative functions of the NFIP, including the claims process. As one Katrina victim recently learned, homeowners who file claims under the NFIP must closely follow the rules contained in their policies.

Violet Collins, a resident of New Orleans, maintained a flood insurance policy through the NFIP to cover her house and its contents. The structure was insured for $225,000 and the contents for $12,500. When the home sustained flood damage during Hurricane Katrina, Collins contacted FEMA to provide notification of the damage. FEMA sent an adjuster to her house to inspect the damage and arrange for payment from FEMA. Collins later submitted additional documentation for damage that the adjuster had overlooked, and FEMA issued her two more checks. Some time later, Collins filed a suit against the NFIP which alleged that the payments on her flood claims were insufficient. The NFIP filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that Collins failed to file a proof of loss as required by the insurance policy and was therefore barred from seeking additional money. The district court granted NFIP’s motion, and Collins appealed.

After reaffirming that it must “strictly construe and enforce” the flood policy’s requirements, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals asserted that “an insured’s failure to provide a complete, sworn proof of loss statement, as required by the flood insurance policy, relieves the federal insurer’s obligation to pay what otherwise might be a valid claim.” Gowland v. Aetna, 143 F.3d 951, 954 (5th Cir. 1998). The court noted that, ordinarily, the proof must be submitted within 60 days of the loss, but that FEMA extended the window for Hurricane Katrina claims to one year. Nevertheless, Collins never submitted any proof of loss; the court examined Collins’s arguments for why she was not required to file one. Her first argument was that FEMA had waived the requirement altogether, a contention that the court quickly dispensed with by citing well-settled case law on the same question. Second, Collins asserted that the NFIP waived the filing requirement in a letter she received from an insurance adjuster. However, the court concluded this was not possible because “federal regulations provide that no provision of the policy may be altered, varied, or waived without the express written consent of the Federal Insurance Administrator,” which was not given. Finally, Collins argued that because she suffers from a debilitating eye disease, she was excused from observing the filing requirement. In response, the unsympathetic court stated that “Collins, however, fails to explain why Louisiana tort law would apply to her claim for flood insurance proceeds or why, if applicable, this would exempt her from our precedent requiring strict compliance with the … proof-of-loss requirements.” Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Collins’s suit.

This case serves as a reminder that, even in the aftermath of such massive natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina, flood victims are still expected to follow the specific requirements of their NFIP insurance policies when seeking payment for flood-related losses. Although it may seem cruel to reject a flood victim’s appeal for a fair pay-out, the courts have put policyholders on notice that they will not entertain requests to alter the terms of the policies. For this reason, victims of any flood should seek the help of a qualified attorney who can help them navigate the steps required to fully collect on their flood insurance policies.

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