Mississippi sues State Farm, saying aid program paid Katrina claims insurer wrongly rejected

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Nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Mississippi's Gulf Coast, state government sued State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. on Tuesday, saying the insurer improperly denied homeowners' claims and allowed a state aid program to pay instead.

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Attorney General Jim Hood filed the civil fraud suit in Hinds County Circuit Court, saying Mississippi paid as much as $522 million to State Farm policyholders under the Homeowners Assistance Program.

State Farm spokesman Phil Supple expressed surprise at the suit.

"We are still reviewing the lawsuit filed earlier today, which was not expected considering what we have done in resolving claims as a result of Hurricane Katrina," Supple said in a statement.

The new suit builds on allegations against the unit of Illinois-based State Farm in a federal suit by Kerri and Cori Rigsby, Ocean Springs sisters who claim State Farm pressured engineers to rule that damage was caused by floodwaters instead of wind. Like most private insurers, State Farm's policies cover wind damage but not flood. Typically, property owners have to turn to federal flood insurance for protection.

The Rigsbys won their case in 2013, centering on one Biloxi home, with State Farm required to pay $750,000 in damages, with 30 percent going to the Rigsbys and the rest going to the federal government. Their lawyers won $2.9 million in legal fees and expenses. State Farm is appealing to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and has pursued legal action against the Rigsbys, claiming they stole company documents.

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Hood signed a contract with Maison Heidelberg and other lawyers who represented the Rigsbys on April 17. The lawyers agreed to take the case on contingency for the fee schedule enshrined in state law. Under that schedule, the lawyers would get 25 percent of any recovery up to $10 million, then declining in steps to eventually getting 5 percent of any amount above $25 million. The state pays nothing if it loses.

Spokeswoman Jan Schaefer said Hood began considering a suit after the Rigsbys won.

"In the wake of that verdict, we spent considerable time closely evaluating the impact of this activity on the state," she wrote in an email.

Though Katrina struck in 2005, Mississippi's constitution says that state government faces no statute of limitations in civil cases — that time never runs out for the state to sue. Schaefer said the state is considering lawsuits against other insurers.

Many coastal residents didn't get enough from insurance to rebuild after Katrina. Some hadn't bought flood insurance because federal maps falsely predicted their homes would not flood. Others received some insurance payments but not enough to cover losses. To aid them, the state created the Homeowners Assistance Program with federal money, eventually paying out more than $2 billion.

In the suit, Mississippi said that among the beneficiaries were 6,800 State Farm policyholders. The state paid them a combined $522 million, while State Farm paid only $99 million, ruling that the rest of the damage wasn't covered by policies.

Hood said that's because State Farm manipulated adjusters' and engineering reports to exclude wind as a cause of damage and systematically denied wind claims even without examining individual properties, meaning the aid program picked up the tab for what should have been covered losses.

"State Farm took advantage of our program by causing HAP to pay for wind losses that State Farm should have covered under its homeowner policies," Hood, a Democrat seeking re-election this year, said in a statement. "Remarkably, State Farm and other insurers walked away from Hurricane Katrina and experienced record profits in the years following, while Mississippi continues to suffer."

The contract with the lawyers said the state will have to prove its case property by property. Of the thousands of aid recipients, the suit cites 12 cases in six coastal cities. Still, Schaefer said large sums could be in play.

"We will have to determine the exact financial impact of State Farm's activities in litigation, but we believe it to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars," she wrote.

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Online: Mississippi's complaint against State Farm: http://bit.ly/1GgeBMd

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