What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Engineers cut from storm suits

  • Firm that helped State Farm with claims reaches settlement
By Michael Kunzelman
The Associated Press
November 14, 2007

NEW ORLEANS — An engineering firm has reached a settlement with attorneys who have filed hundreds of lawsuits against State Farm Insurance Cos. on behalf of policyholders whose claims were denied by the insurer after Hurricane Katrina.

Under terms of the settlement, Forensic Analysis and Engineering Corp., which helped State Farm adjust policyholder claims in Mississippi, would be dropped from a federal lawsuit that accuses the insurer of engaging in a "pattern of racketeering" after the storm.

Forensic would be dismissed from several of those suits, including one filed in June that accuses Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm of violating the civil Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization Act, or RICO, in its handling of claims after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.

Zach Scruggs, one of the attorneys who filed the RICO case against Forensic, State Farm and engineering firm E.A. Renfroe & Company Inc., said the settlement will "better enable us to prosecute our cases against State Farm." Scruggs said he couldn't elaborate, however, because the terms of the deal are confidential.

In a related development this past week, a federal magistrate in Gulfport agreed to lift a court order that had barred Scruggs from providing a federal grand jury with a Forensic employee's computer hard drive.

U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton, whose jurisdiction includes Mississippi's Gulf Coast, served Scruggs with a subpoena for the hard drive. Lampton has convened a grand jury that is believed to be investigating the insurance industry's handling of claims after Katrina.

Forensic had persuaded U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Walker to block Scruggs from complying with the subpoena. Now that Walker has lifted the order, Scruggs said his firm is "making arrangements" to turn over the hard drive it obtained from Forensic employee Nellie Williams in July.

An attorney for Raleigh, N.C.-based Forensic and a State Farm spokesman said they couldn't immediately comment on Forensic's settlement.

Scruggs and other policyholders' attorneys have accused State Farm of pressuring its engineers into altering their conclusions in reports on storm-damaged homes so claims could be denied. To support that claim, Scruggs' firm cited a series of e-mails exchanged by Forensic officials in October 2005.

In one e-mail, Forensic President and CEO Robert Kochan describes complaints about the firm's work made by Alexis King, a State Farm manager in Mississippi. Randy Down, who was the firm's vice president of engineering services, responded, "I really question the ethics of someone who wants to fire us simply because our conclusions don't match hers."

Forensic also is named as a defendant in a separate lawsuit the Scruggs Katrina Group's attorneys filed against several insurance companies, accusing them of overbilling the federal government for flood damage from Katrina.

The U.S. Department of Justice has until Jan. 31 to decide whether to intervene in that suit. In the meantime, Scruggs said his firm doesn't have the authority to dismiss Forensic from the case.

"That's kind of in a holding pattern now," he said.

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