Katrina Insurance Trial Kicks Off in Louisiana With Jury Selection

The first trial for one of the several thousand lawsuits that Louisiana homeowners filed against their insurers in federal court after Hurricane Katrina began Monday with jury selection, although the judge admitted the court may have some trouble finding an unbiased panel.

In their lawsuit against Allstate Indemnity Co., Lawrence Tomlinson and his wife, Elizabeth, accuse the Northbrook, Ill.-based company of bad faith, saying it failed to properly or promptly adjust their claim. The couple also claims the company underpaid them for wind damage.

Allstate, in turn, disputes the extent of the wind damage to the Tomlinsons' home in Marrero and accuses the couple of misrepresenting parts of their claim.

U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman hoped to have a six-member jury picked in time to start opening arguments later in the day, with a goal of completing the trial as early as Wednesday. But he acknowledged some potential problems in finding an unbiased panel.

"Everybody has got a Katrina story," said Feldman, who quickly dismissed 13 of the first 45 potential jurors because they had policies with Allstate, and another who was a neighbor of the Tomlinsons.

"And if you don't have a Katrina story, you know somebody who does. So we can't overlook that," Feldman said.

Tulane Law School professor Ed Sherman said a victory for the Tomlinsons could embolden other homeowners to sue their insurers, but he downplayed the possible legal implications for the roughly 4,000 other Katrina lawsuits awaiting trials here in federal court.

"These are very personal, individual issues," he said.

The Tomlinsons are challenging the manner in which Allstate adjusted and paid their claim, but not how the company interpreted its policy terms. In Mississippi, meanwhile, hundreds of homeowners have filed similar lawsuits challenging the insurance companies' refusal to pay for damage from Katrina's storm surge.

The companies say their policies cover damage from a hurricane's wind but not rising water, including wind-driven surge. This wind versus water debate — a central issue for many of the roughly 350 federal lawsuits still pending in Mississippi — isn't a factor in the Tomlinsons' case because their home didn't flood.

Alan Kanner, a lawyer who represents other policyholders with lawsuits against insurers after Katrina, said the key question for jurors in the Tomlinsons' case appears to be, "Did (Allstate) do a good job adjusting or not?"

"At the end of the day, 94 percent of these cases are just adjustment cases," Kanner said.

A recent string of legal milestones for Katrina insurance cases in Mississippi has largely overshadowed the court battles between homeowners and insurers in Louisiana.

A jury last month awarded $2.5 million in punitive damages to a Biloxi, Miss., couple who sued State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. for denying their claim. A judge later reduced that award to $1 million but concluded the company acted in a "grossly negligent way."

State Farm also agreed last month to pay about $80 million to settle lawsuits by 640 policyholders in Mississippi and pay at least an additional $50 million to thousands of policyholders who didn't sue the company.

The latter "class action" portion of the settlement calls for State Farm to reopen, review and possibly pay up to 35,000 disputed claims. A judge has refused to approve this part of the deal without knowing more details, however.

Allstate has paid the Tomlinsons more than $100,000 for damage to their home and its contents, plus living expenses, but the couple claims the payments weren't adequate. The Tomlinsons also say Allstate didn't start adjusting their claim after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm until Nov. 28 — more than the 30 days allowed by law.

Allstate spokesman Michael Siemienas declined to comment on the case, but he said, "Allstate is confident in its claims settling practices following Hurricane Katrina and is committed to resolving all claims fairly and appropriately."

Christy Howley, a lawyer for the Tomlinsons, declined to be interviewed Friday.