After more than eight weeks of stalemate over a federal court agreement to reopen thousands of insurance claims from Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi, State Farm said Monday that it would work instead through state regulators. The new plan would speed the flow of money to storm victims but they would lose the court’s oversight.
State Farm, Mississippi’s largest insurer, said it would follow the general terms of the agreement that it had worked out with trial lawyers and presented to Judge L.T. Senter Jr. of U.S. District Court, in January. Both plans would affect as many as 36,000 homeowners. State Farm, which has already paid out $1.1 billion in Mississippi, said it would pay at least $50 million under the new plan and perhaps several hundred million more.
But State Farm offered no improvements to the initial agreement, which Senter had repeatedly said appeared to be tilted in favor of the insurance company and had refused to approve. Under the new arrangement, State Farm will bypass Senter, and its dealings with storm victims will be approved and supervised by state regulators.
“We are moving from a legal environment to the regulatory environment,” said Phil Supple, a State Farm spokesman.
Senter would not comment Monday. One of his clerks, speaking on condition of anonymity because he does not want to become part of the public debate, suggested that the judge cared more about resolving the case than who was supervising it. “The judge is all for anything and anyone who wants to move these cases toward resolution,” the clerk said. But, he added, the judge could still call both sides back into court.
Gov. Haley Barbour said State Farm’s new approach was “great news” and would get money flowing to homeowners who have been unable to rebuild, more than 20 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Insurance regulators and other state officials said they shared Senter’s concerns, but had been frustrated by the pace of the court proceeding and wanted to get money to storm victims even if the terms were not ideal.
“This may not be for some consumers,” said Lee Harrell, the deputy insurance commissioner in Mississippi. “They still may think it’s not good enough. However, we believe that this will allow additional claims to be resolved.”
The dispute in Mississippi has been over whether homes were wrecked by floodwaters or high winds or both. The insurers said their policies pay for wind damage but not for flooding. In many cases, the insurers have refused to pay claims on homes that were destroyed by both wind and water. In others, lawyers for victims have said, they have underpaid for wind damage.
Insurance experts and lawyers outside the case said they expected a flurry of new lawsuits. “People have now been informed that a federal judge thinks the settlement was not rich enough,” said Randy Maniloff, a lawyer in Philadelphia who represents insurance companies. “And it’s going to be easy for lawyers to convince them they’re not giving up much by foregoing this settlement opportunity.”