Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr of the Federal District Court in New Orleans has opened the door to payments for homeowners whose homes were destroyed by Katrina. Or has he? We read in the New York Times that some insurers must pay for damage because the flooding in New Orleans was due to human error - specifically, the failure of man-made levees to hold back the water. Because most insurance policies do not specifically exclude "man-made" flood disasters, the judge has determined that the insurers must pay. On the other hand, he says that State Farm and the Hartford are off the hook because their policies do not provide coverage for flooding "regardless of cause."
While lawyers for the homeowners are calling this a major breakthrough, defense lawyers see it as a temporary set back. They are confident that the judge's parsing of the policy language will be overturned at the appeals court level.
"The judge reached the wrong conclusion," said Robert Hartwig, chief economist at the Insurance Information Institute. "The policies clearly exclude flood-related damage under any and all circumstances. We do not believe the decision will be upheld."
With over 200,000 homes and thousands of businesses damaged or destroyed by the flooding in New Orleans, there are billions at stake. Beyond that, the future of the city itself is uncertain, as billions in promised federal aid has failed to reach the people who need it.
Comp is Really Different
All of this litigation, the months and years of uncertainty for all parties involved, stand in stark contrast to the workers comp system. For those of us who deal with comp every day, we are reminded that comp is a no fault system that operates with generous parameters of compensability. If you are "in the course and scope of employment," if you are in fact someone's employee, your injury is likely to be compensable. Once a claim is reported to the carrier, the insurer usually has just a couple of weeks to determine compensability and start making payments. This standard can be difficult to meet and creates headaches for claims adjusters. But the great benefit is that it takes uncertainty off the table for injured workers and their families. They don't have to scrounge for food and shelter while their case wends its way through the courts.
We will follow the fate of New Orleans property owners with great interest. It will be fascinating to see if Judge Duval's ruling opens the floodgates to significant payments to home owners or just ends up being another judicial "distinction without a difference." The future of a city - and possibly that of the insurance industry - may well hang in the balance.