I first became interested in the Katrina coverage lawsuits in Mississippi because they present some pretty fascinating issues, but now that a lot of the legal questions have been decided, it’s interesting to follow the psychological warfare being waged by one of the main plaintiff lawyers.
Check out this story about a homeowner who now claims State Farm fraudulently induced him into signing a statement in support of the insurer’s Katrina claims handling. The story is a little stingy with details about how exactly State Farm allegedly put one over on him, but his allegation appears to be that he didn’t know the insurer initially evaluated his loss as due to wind, not water. For those who haven’t been following this, basically wind is covered, flood water is not. He apparently was paid some $36,000 for a loss of about $1 million.
The story says his home was in Biloxi, but I guess the big unanswered question is this: where in Biloxi was the guy’s house? Was it 100 yards from the beach? Unlike most of these Katrina stories where the value of the home is kept confidential from readers like it is part of the recipe for some secret sauce, this story tells us his house is worth at least $1 million. I don’t know for sure, but my guess would be that value places it fairly close to water.
I have to criticize this story for failing to answer or even ask basic questions. What exactly did his statement in support of State Farm say, and what were the circumstances under which they asked for it? When did he get in contact with plaintiff lawyer Dickie Scruggs, or Scruggs with him, and under what circumstances? What exactly does the engineer’s report on his house say? And again, most importantly, HOW CLOSE IS HIS HOUSE TO THE OCEAN? The answer to that question would help us judge for ourselves whether wind or water damaged his house. The story’s lead says State Farm "coerced" him, but how he was coerced isn’t stated until far down in the story, apparently because it doesn’t sound very credible: the homeowner claims he signed the statement because he was afraid State Farm would cancel his insurance. Really? I guess if I felt an insurance company underpaid me by $964,000 on a $1 million claim, I wouldn’t really care if I lost that insurance or not.
I’m not going to tell you that I never wrote a story like this back in my newspaper days. Deadline pressures and space limitations can force you into all sorts of compromises. However, it wouldn’t have taken much extra time to find out the answers to these questions, and most of the story is made up of easily replaced filler quotes. Too often newspaper stories are written with this glib he-said, she-said mentality, and once you get past the initial hullabaloo and start analyzing the story, the writer appears manipulative or lazy, forcing you to divine the real story from clues about what was left out.