Here’s the story from Michael Kunzelman of the Associated Press and here is a pdf of Judge Senter’s opinion. I thought this proposed class action, involving only slab cases, might make more sense than the proposed Woullard class action with some 36,000 Katrina victims in it, but Judge Senter’s reasoning in his three-page opinion is pretty persuasive. Here’s what he had to say:
Three ‘slab cases’ have now been tried to verdict, and I have learned some important lessons from these trials, lessons that are relevant to the merits of this motion: 1) the forces exerted by Hurricane Katrina varied substantially from one location along the Mississippi Gulf Coast to another; 2) the forces exerted against a particular building varied substantially depending on the building’s proximity to the shore line; 3) the damage any given building may have sustained varied substantially depending on its age, quality of construction, and even its design (e.g. gable roof compared with hip roof) and orientation to the forces exerted by the storm, particularly the wind; and 4) claims were handled by Defendant in a variety of ways.
Because of this, Senter wrote, the differences between class members would be as great as the similarities and there is no procedural advantage to creating a class of slab cases. Senter also said the proposed class action would be unfair to State Farm, because it would impose liability for policy limits in every case, which would keep State Farm from being able to prove that damage to a home was caused by flood, not wind.
Senter also provided some insight into his thinking about the allocation of burden of proof in the Katrina cases:
In the Broussard case State Farm was unable to offer substantial evidence that would have allowed the jury to apportion the total loss between covered windstorm forces and excluded water damage. In more recent cases, including Gemmill and Williams, State Farm was able to offer such proof. In all cases, State Farm has a right to offer any evidence it wishes to support its view of the relevant facts, and this right is part of the most fundamental requirements of due process, in my opinion.
Senter can say a lot in a few words. Other judges and lawyers could learn from him.