Sunday, September 18, 2005

Mississippi Beating

Credit: Marshall Ramsey, The Clarion Ledger

Mississippi state Attorney General Jim Hood is taking an early beating from editorial writers in Mississippi newspapers for his recently filed lawsuit "in behalf of Mississippi residents and/or property owners in and around the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

Hood has sued multiple property insurance companies, among them a line-up of the usual suspects like Farm Bureau, State Farm, Allstate, USAA, and Nationwide. (Meanwhile, Oxford private attorney Richard ('Dickie') Scruggs also says he is preparing to file "thousands of lawsuits" for individual clients with similar complaints.)

Hood's lawsuit raises five claims. In three of them, he alleges that insurance company attempts to avoid coverage under an asserted provision excluding 'flood' coverage are against public policy, unconscionable, and ambiguous. The fourth claim asserts that for years the defendants have sold policies in Mississippi coastal communities on the representation that they "specifically contemplate full and comprehensive hurricane coverage... ."

The fifth claim is in some ways the most novel, fact-specific, and urgent for it alleges that adjusters sent into Mississippi are:
"at present utilizing forms and other documents requiring policyholders to acknowledge and concede...disputed factual issues to the benefit of the defendants [insurance companies] and to the prejudice of the polciyholders."
A current example of this is attached as "Exhibit A" to the attorney general's complaint. It's a form apparently presented to Mississippi policyholders which requires them to concede they suffered a "Flood loss."

Local editorialists around the state are coming down hard against Hood's lawsuit. The south Mississippi Sun Herald is particularly snarky, claiming the attorney general has gone "overboard," is 'not following the law,' and "is sending a dangerous signal to the entire private sector." Equally unimpressed are the Meridian Star and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

As it happens, Mississippi does not have a "value policy" statute, as Florida did until earlier this year and as other, many more progressive states still do. So far as the wind-vs-water issue is concerned, consequently, unlike the hundreds -- if not thousands -- of Ivan-related lawsuits in Florida, the Mississippi lawsuit appears to rest most heavily on what Hood alleges is the common law of the state of Mississippi. That, of course, has little if any relevance in Florida.

Insofar as Hood's suit depends on Mississippi common law, he may or may not be right. It will take extensive legal briefing, oral arguments, and no doubt years of appeals before anyone can be sure. But you can be sure right now of one thing: the Mississippi editorial writers don't have a clue what they're pontificating about.

Until the evidence is in and the law has been researched the newspaper chains in that state, and the few remaining independents, would better serve the public if they reserved judgment, did a more honest job of reporting the facts as Media Matters urges, and stopped jumping to judgment as fast as an old time Mississippi lynch mob.

No comments: