Residents returned after evacuating from Hurricane Laura not knowing what they would find. The first glimpse of a damaged or totally destroyed home was emotionally devastating. Little did they suspect the soul-crushing storm after the storm. Insurance companies that were promptly paid for years, sometimes decades, did not seem to be on the policyholder’s side in the fight to recover and rebuild.
One year later, some policyholders are still not back in their houses after meeting with as many as eight adjustors. Contractors, when they can be found, have been unable to begin the work until details are settled with insurance carriers.
“Even when it’s done the way it’s supposed to be done, hurricanes take a toll,” said Wells Watson, an attorney with Baggett McCall. “It’s just wearing on you, you’ve got all the other responsibilities in your life and the one place you can go and feel safe and recharge, you can’t go. It takes away your sense of normalcy.”
“Your struggle has not been forgotten,” promised Louisiana Insurance Commissioner James Donelon.
As of Aug. 17, the Louisiana Department of Insurance has received 1,707 complaints related to Laura, Delta and Zeta hurricane claims and recovered more than $50.4 million for consumers from the 2020 storms through the complaint process through mid-August.
“This is clearly the second-worst hurricane insured loss event the state has seen with 290,000 claims filed and $8.6 billion in insured losses,” Donelon said. “Laura has been displaced by Hurricane Rita when policy holders claimed $3.3 billion in insured losses.”
Katrina is the biggest-ever insured loss event.
Of those claims, 62 percent have been closed with payments to the satisfaction of policyholders, according to Donelon. Thirty percent have been closed without payment and that’s due to high deductibles that come with hurricanes or named storm damage in almost every coastal state.
Earlier in the year, Donelon cautioned insurers who might attempt to classify damage as “material change in the risk” for purposes of cancellation or non-renewal.
“I will exercise the full extent of my regulatory enforcement authority to protect Louisiana homeowners,” he said in a February 2021 bulletin.
State Rep. Brett Geymann sponsored a bill that passed June 15 and became effective Aug. 1 to help Lake Area residents push forward with repairs and make sure storm victims are treated right and get what they deserve from insurance companies.
“Our courts are here to make insurance companies, all insurance companies big and small, adhere to the law,” said Ron Richard, Lake Charles City Court Judge. “Every person’s case is important, and if insurance companies don’t comply with their contractual obligations they will learn the full extent of the law.”
Just because an individual files a suit against his insurance company, does not ensure certain victory. However, for insurance companies found guilty of not investigating claims properly, delaying payment or denying payment for unjustifiable reasons, they must pay damages to their client. Courts can levy severe penalties.
“In civil disputes up to $50,000 in amount, the matter can be handled right here in Lake Charles within months, not years,” Richard said. “We want to give all parties their day in court and we want to do that sooner rather than later.”
Watson said he has not seen a lot of insurance carriers “looking to pay.” He has seen a lot of tears and frustration from policyholders.
“They’re looking to not pay you,” he said. “We have some of the best laws in the country. Lawyers can enforce these penalty statutes. I can’t speak for all law firms, but I know Baggett McCall does not charge for initial consultation. There is no fee if you don’t recover.”
Watson said cases are based on contingency. The goal is to recover the resources to fix the house, pay the lawyers fees and any entitlements beyond that.
“It’s not too late,” he said.
The Louisiana Department of Insurance has secured $600,000 via an amendment sponsored by then-Sen. Ronnie Johns to investigate five homeowners insurance companies over concerns they mishandled claims, according to the June Insurance Journal.
The monies also make it possible for the department to make information on its website available about the performance of various insurance companies based on a ratio of its market coverage compared to the number of complaints received.
Policyholders having trouble with their insurance claims can call the Louisiana Department of Insurance for help at 1-800-259-5300 or file a complaint online at https://www.ldi.la.gov/fileacomplaint. A team of complaint specialists in the LDI’s Office of Consumer Services is working exclusively on issues related to Hurricanes Laura, Delta and Zeta, and they stand ready to answer consumer questions and resolve complaints.
Written by Rita Lebleu