State Farm Adjustment Firm Settles with Katrina Victims in Civil RICO LawsuitNov 14, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP
State Farm Insurance Company policy holders whose Hurricane Katrina damage claims were denied have reached a settlement with a firm that helped the company prepare damage adjustments. Under the terms of the settlement, claims against Forensic Analysis and Engineering Corp. will be dropped from a federal lawsuit that accuses State Farm of racketeering when it denied thousands of Hurricane Katrina insurance claims.
State Farm was one of the largest insurers on the Gulf Coast when Katrina made landfall there in 2005. Thousands of homes were reduced to rubble by wind and the massive storm surge created by the hurricane. Normal home owners policies do not cover damages from flooding, only wind. But in the case of Katrina claims, many home owners accused State Farm and other insurance companies of attributing damage to flooding, when in reality it was caused by wind, as a way to avoid paying the full value of claims. Some insurance companies initially made offers to settle claims for only pennies on the dollar, sparking thousands of lawsuits along the Gulf Coast.
But many Gulf Coast policyholders claim that the tactics used by State Farm and other insurers to avoid paying claims went far beyond denying payment for water damages. They assert that insurers colluded with adjusters like Forensic Analysis and Engineering to alter damage reports in a way that favored insurance companies. Earlier this summer, one engineer who examined damaged Gulf Coast homes for insurance companies told Bloomberg.com that some of his reports were altered by the companies to say that homes were damaged by flood, and not by wind. By altering these reports, the insurance companies saved tens of thousands of dollars. In response to this despicable behavior, more than 1000 Katrina homeowners have sued their insurance companies over claims.
Forensic Analysis and Engineering agreed to the settlement following a court decision that would have allowed one of the attorneys suing State Farm to furnish a copy of the firm’s employee computer hard drive to a grand jury. That attorney is suing State Farm for violations of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization Act (RICO). Civil RICO allows victims of criminal racketeering to be compensated for their losses, although a criminal conviction is not necessary to make the civil claim. A plaintiff who proves a civil RICO claim would automatically receive judgment in the amount of three times their actual damages and would be awarded their costs and attorneys' fees. The terms of the settlement with Forensic Analysis and Engineering are being kept confidential, but an attorney for some of the State Farm plaintiffs said the agreement would make the RICO case easier to prosecute.
Hurricane Katrina caused more than $80 billion in damage along the Gulf Coast, making it the single most expensive natural disaster in US history. The tactics used by insurance companies like State Farm have also led to the most insurance lawsuits to ever follow a natural disaster in the US.