JACKSON, Miss. – State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. will re-examine more than 35,000 policyholder claims filed after Hurricane Katrina and "make millions of dollars available" for additional payments, Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale said Monday.
Dale said the agreement between his office and State Farm covers homeowners, renters and commercial claims in Mississippi's three coastal counties. The agreement with the Bloomington, Ill.-based insurer includes claims that are in mediation, those that are the subject of pending lawsuits and those that already have been settled.
"If they feel like that they were mistreated and not handled properly, they too can have their case reopened and looked at by additional adjusters," Dale said of people who already have settled.
He said that based on his agency's examination of State Farm's handling of Katrina claims and the recent withdrawal of a proposed class action settlement involving the insurer, he had convinced the company to agree to the "accelerated process to reopen and readjust all Hurricane Katrina claims upon request in the Mississippi coastal counties."
"We anticipate that this will be a quicker process for the folks on the coast so that they can get money, additional moneys in their pocket for the purpose of rebuilding," Dale said during a news conference at his office in Jackson.
On March 12, a team of lawyers who helped negotiate the proposed settlement withdrew their request for U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr., to approve the deal. The team — led by Zach Scruggs' father and law partner, Richard "Dickie" Scruggs — cited a legal "stalemate" and Senter's apparent reluctance to sign off on the settlement.
Attorney Zach Scruggs said later that most of the new deal between Dale and State Farm appears to be "an abbreviated, watered-down version" of the proposed settlement presented in federal court in January.
"There is nothing preventing State Farm from low balling the people the second time around, and there is no recourse for the policyholder other than non-binding mediation if State Farm does low ball them after a second review," Scruggs said.
Senter had been asked to approve the January settlement calling for State Farm to pay at least $50 million to policyholders who haven't sued the company. That deal called for State Farm to reopen, review and possibly pay 35,000 to 36,000 claims.
"When I learned that the proposed class action settlement had stalled, I felt it presented an opportunity to negotiate with State Farm to bring closure for coastal policyholders," Dale said Monday.
State Farm spokesman Phil Supple said Monday that the company's agreement with Dale "generally follows" the same terms as the agreement that Richard Scruggs presented to Senter in January. The company has agreed to pay a minimum of $50 million, but "there's no ceiling" on the total amount paid, Supple said.
One key difference between the two deals, according to Supple, is that Dale's mediation program would aim to resolve any lingering disputes between State Farm and policyholders. Under the terms of the proposed court settlement, those disputes would be settled through binding arbitration.
"Today, we're moving forward to pursue the basic guidelines of that (court) settlement," Supple said. "Unnecessary court battles and political rhetoric in this difficult post-Katrina environment serve no one's interests."
Supple said Richard Scruggs surprised State Farm by withdrawing his legal team's request for Senter to approve the proposed settlement, "without even talking to us."
"This is moving it from the litigation arena to the regulatory arena," Supple said, noting that State Farm's deal with Dale wouldn't require a judge's approval.
"We don't want our customers, we don't want ourselves, to have to go through years and years of litigation, which costs lots and lots of money," Supple said.
Zach Scruggs said Monday that State Farm's agreement with a "friendly insurance commissioner" may give policyholders fewer guarantees or protections because the latest deal doesn't carry the benefits of a judge's oversight or binding arbitration.
"Nothing was stopping State Farm from doing this all along," Zach Scruggs said. "It just doesn't have any teeth in it, from what I can see."
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said of State Farm: "The sooner they pay, the better, but they still have to 'establish an administrative procedure to reevaluate all claims' and to make new offers based on criteria and guidelines approved by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. Those are the terms they have already signed off on and I expect them to comply with those terms."
Gov. Haley Barbour praised Dale's action in getting State Farm to reopen the cases in Harrison, Hancock and Jackson counties, where thousands of people are still waiting to rebuild homes destroyed by the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.
"Everyone's goal should be to get as much money as possible into the hands of as many people as possible so they can continue to rebuild," Barbour said in a news release. "This agreement is another way to do that."