Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood filed suit today to force insurance carriers to pay homeowners’ claims from Hurricane Katrina that involve flood or water damages.
“Although some insurance companies are trying to do the right thing, I won’t allow others to take advantage of people hurt by Hurricane Katrina,” Mr. Hood said at a press conference in Biloxi announcing the suit.
Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio, one of the defendants in the action, responded with a statement that any allegations of misconduct were “unfounded” and that policy exclusions of flood claims are well established.
The suit filed in Hinds County Chancery Court in Jackson, Miss. seeks a court finding that policy language excluding direct or indirect water damage, whether or not it is driven by wind, is unenforceable because it is contrary to public policy, unconscionable, ambiguous and in violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act.
As part of his action Mr. Hood sought an immediate temporary restraining order to stop what he announced were “unscrupulous insurance adjusters” from asking property owners to sign documents stating their loss was caused by flood or water, as opposed to wind.
Insurers were using this means, he said in a statement, to have policyholders “sign away rights to ‘flood damage’ in exchange for a significantly smaller amount which will be used for immediate living expenses.”
He asked for the injunction to bar use of water exclusions to deny or reduce coverage.
The suit names Mississippi Farm Bureau Insurance, State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., Allstate Property and Casualty Co., USAA, and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. as defendants.
Mississippi Insurance Commissioner George Dale reacted to the suit by saying “I will be guided by whatever the courts decide, but I think the long-range ramifications of this could be very difficult.”
Mr. Dale said that commissioners in other states have said that deciding between flood and wind damage is one of the most difficult ones that have come up in the aftermath of this hurricane and others.
Not since Hurricane Camille in 1969 has the state experienced such a water surge. “And so the reason it is so controversial this time is because it affects so many people,” he said.
The federal government has traditionally provided homeowners flood coverage while the private sector covers wind-related damage.
Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Diane Koken, who is also president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, said that expecting insurance companies to provide coverage for which premium was not collected could threaten their solvency.
Julie Rochman, senior vice president for the American Insurance Association, said any time a state attorney general files such a suit it has to be taken seriously.
“We don’t think there are grounds here because the insurance industry has historically not covered flood,” she said. “So it is a bit troubling and mystifying why someone would think that taking the responsibility of the federal government and shifting it to insurers, who clearly do not cover these losses, would seem good public policy.”
In addition, high-profile plaintiff’s attorney Richard Scruggs has filed a similar suit against carriers in the affected area, asserting that homeowners’ policies “clearly provide for comprehensive coverage for any and all hurricane damage.”
“The insurance companies are attempting to minimize their hurricane coverage by intentionally misclassifying the hurricane’s destruction as mere flooding,” he said.
Nationwide said it “is absolutely not asking policyholders to acknowledge damage is flood related in order to receive a check for living expenses” and Nationwide “does not own any company called Nationwide Flood Insurance Company as noted in the legal action filed today.”
It warned that if these “long-recognized and relied-upon” flood exclusions were voided, “it would have a significant negative impact on insurance policyholders across the country. There is a federal flood insurance program available to all individuals who desire to purchase this coverage.