Mississippi noisier than its neighbors, attorney says

John O'Brien Jan. 29, 2007, 2:36pm


News stories about lawsuits that claim a lack of insurance coverage after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina have been everywhere recently.

Mostly they have been stories from Mississippi, said an attorney and former newspaper reporter Monday.

"There was also damage in Alabama and certainly Louisiana, but you look at it and ask, 'Where is all the noise coming from?'" said David Rossmiller, a partner at Dunn Carney in Portland, Ore., managing editor of the Insurance Coverage Law Blog and a former reporter at the now-defunct Phoenix Gazette.

"All the noise is coming from Mississippi."

Friday, U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter kept the noise alive, rejecting the proposed class action settlement between State Farm Insurance Co. and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. After initially reaching the settlement, Hood released a statement to the public urging the remaining four companies in the lawsuit (Allstate, Nationwide, Farm Bureau and USAA) to settle.

"Are the claims-handling practices different there (than in Louisiana and Alabama)? No. What you're looking at is a well-concerted and, from a policyholder's standpoint, very vigorous and well-done public relations rift between the sides," Rossmiller said.

Senter cited procedural problems with the State Farm settlement, to which Hood and the Scruggs Katrina Group responded. The Scruggs Katrina Group is led by prestigious plaintiffs attorney Richard Scrubbs and stood to collect up to $46 million in fees, according to a report from The Associated Press.

"It will not diminish by one cent what our clients will get," Scruggs said in the report.

Rossmiller said it hasn't just been Hood putting the public relations pressure on the insurance companies, but plaintiffs attorneys all over the state. None are more visible than Scruggs, whose firm was paid more than $1 billion for helping negotiate a state settlement with tobacco companies in the mid-1990s.

The group is representing 639 policyholders who would have collected $80 million, with another $26 million going toward attorneys fees.

Had the settlement been approved, Scruggs Katrina Group could have made an extra $20 million for a separate part of the settlement that addresses policyholders who did not sue. There are an estimated 35,000 of those.

The AP report says the group has spent about $5 million so far.

"I think he personally had more than 1,500 lawsuits against various insurance companies," Rossmiller said. "He didn't have any involvement with what the Attorney General was doing, to my knowledge, but he was involved in this part of the settlement. The AG kind of gave his blessing to the whole settlement and figured it looked OK to him."

Hood has made his fair share of noise, too, and even asked policyholders to call their insurance companies and urge a settlement of his lawsuit. He's also kept the possibility of national insurance reform initiated by three Mississippi congressmen and a criminal investigation on the minds of State Farm's decision-makers.

Rossmiller has said that the insurance companies were standing on sturdy legal ground and questioned whether the Office of Attorney General needed to get involved.

In Louisiana and Alabama, it hasn't -- at least not to the extent that Mississippi's has.

"They put tremendous pressure on the insurance companies to settle, and they started with State Farm because it's the biggest and feel that everybody will have to fall in line if State Farm settled," Rossmiller said.

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Mississippi Attorney General
550 High St Suite 1200
Jackson, MS 39201

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