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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Mississippi Supreme Court rejects appointment of special master in AG Hood's Hurricane Katrina lawsuits

State AG

By Marian Johns and Scott Holland | Aug 29, 2019


Hood

JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) – The Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled a circuit court abused its discretion in the assigning of a special master and in the reassignment of a case involving Hurricane Katrina insurance and the state's Homeowner Assistance Program (HAP).

According to the Aug. 22 Supreme Court of Mississippi filing, appellant Safeco Insurance Co. of America filed the appeal in a case against the appellee, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, challenging a circuit court judge's reassignment of the case and the appointment of a special master.

The case is part of at least a dozen cases being litigated in the state between insurers and the state involving Hurricane Katrina claims. According to the Mississippi Supreme Court filing, the State set up the federally funded HAP after the storm to help uninsured or underinsured homeowners. The State claims that a portion of the HAP assistance it paid out was due to insurance companies wrongly categorizing flood damage claims as wind-damage claims.

In October 2017, a circuit court judge appointed a special master to the case involving Safeco and also reassigned the case to her docket. The judge cited the "overcrowded civil and criminal dockets" and the "complexity" of the case as the reasoning for assigning a special master, the ruling states. 

Safeco alleged the circuit court judge violated the Uniform Civil Rules of Circuit and County Court Practice that requires "random reassignment" of cases. Safeco also alleged the circuit court abused its discretion with the appointment of the special master, a New Orleans-based attorney given "broad authority," the ruling states. 

Justice Kenneth Griffis stated the reassignment of the case was not "based on a reasonable, legitimate reason" and therefore remanded the case to a different circuit judge. 

Chief Justice Michael Randolph and justices Josiah Coleman, James Maxwell, Dawn Beam and Robert Chamberlin concurred with Justice David Ishee concurring in part.

Justices James Kitchens and Leslie King dissented. King wrote in his dissent that he did not believe the appointment of a special master was an abuse of discretion.

"Instead of reversing the appointment of a special master, I would reverse and remand the order for the trial court to reconsider the duties and authorities of the special master, and to eliminate the ex parte communications and blind billing provisions," King wrote.

In a related 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court vacated the appointment of a special master in a similar lawsuit involving Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

In an opinion issued Aug. 22, Justice Maxwell wrote, “But unlike Safeco, there is no issue of case reassignment from one judge’s docket to another. The only issue in this appeal is the trial court’s appointment of a special master.”

Maxwell said both cases fell outside the bound of the state’s court rules and applying the same logic it used in Safeco, Maxwell vacated the appointment of a special master and remanded the complaint for further proceedings.

Joining Maxwell in the majority opinion were Randolph and Justices Josiah Coleman, Dawn Beam, Robert Chamberlin, David Ishee and Kenneth Griffis.

Justice King wrote another dissent, joined by Justice Kitchens. King said the reasons for his dissent were identical to the ones that prompted his dissension in the Safeco opinion.

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