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Jury Agrees with Katrina Victims

Jul 18, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

A panel of local jurors awarded Admiral James Lisanby and his wife, Gladys, the maximum that their homeowner insurance policy could pay in Katrina damage to their home as well as what they believed wind might have done to the contents, garage, and guest cottage.  The jury also awarded the couple $86,000 each for pain and suffering they feel was caused by a wrong decision on the part of insurer USAA to deny all but $46,000 of the couple's insurance claims.  The total comes to about $910,000.  The Lisanby’s were asking for $914,000 for their Pascagoula beach front home, their rental cottage, garage, and other losses as well as punitive damages.  The Lisanbys, aged 80 and 79, also received $350,000 from the National Flood Insurance program.

The Lisanby’s is the first Katrina insurance suit to be heard in Jackson County and one of the first Katrina insurance cases to go to a jury in state court.  Most Katrina cases have been heard in federal court because insurance company home offices tend to be located out-of-sate; however, since USAA is member-owned, it is considered in-state.

USAA lawyers argued it owed no more than the approximately $40,000 it already paid since the Lisanbys' homeowners insurance policy does not cover water, even wind-driven water.  During instructions, the judge advised the jury the plaintiff has the burden of proof that wind and not water caused the damage. An attorney for USAA, urged the judge to make the decision on the punitive award on the case himself and not give it to the jury, arguing no one had proven malice on the part of USAA, so punitive damages were not an issue.

An attorney for the Lisanby’s detailed a variety of issues representing “reckless disregard for the client" by USAA, which he believed would justify a monetary award against the USAA as punishment.  The attorney said that USAA based its decision to deny the Lisanbys' claim on “shoddy information and uninformed engineering” and that the USAA lied to James Lisanby, causing him to use the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to tear down his home quickly when his insurance policy included a debris clause that would have paid and given them more time and options.  He also pointed out that the USAA urged Gladys Lisanby to complete over 100 pages of items lost, ever though it had no intention of paying the couple.

Katrina destroyed the Lisanbys' retirement home and outbuildings on the Pascagoula beach.  The USAA previously paid about $46,000, saying damage was caused by water, which the couple's homeowner policy did not cover. The Lisanbys claimed there was damage done solely by the wind; after two weeks of technical testimony, the jury agreed.  The Lisanby’s home was valued at about $1.5 million so they had to prove at least one-third of the was caused by wind to get the roughly $500,000 remaining on their replacement-value policy.

One attorney with clients suing their insurance companies over unpaid Katrina losses said the verdict was significant to more than the Lisanbys.


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