Michael and Michelle Williams, who had sued State Farm over alleged failure to pay Hurricane Katrina wind damages, reached a settlement with the insurer during a trial on their insurance claim after the judge removed a punitive damages claim from the case, this story from the Sun Herald says.
The case had been in the court of Judge L.T. Senter Jr., but a few days ago he reassigned the trial to Senior Judge Peter Beer. This case was one of the "slab" cases: the Williams’ home in Ocean Springs had been completely wiped out by flood surge, and State Farm denied coverage under the policy’s flood exclusion. Here is a pdf of the pre-trial order, which is very similar to the pre-trial order in the recent Broussard case — the same attorneys were involved for both sides. For those who don’t deal with this stuff all the time, a pre-trial order is a feature of federal court in which the parties are supposed to agree to the extent possible on the facts and legal issues to be presented at trial. Sometimes a judge will waive the pre-trial order, but most don’t. If you scroll through it, you can see the facts and issues as each side framed them.
The Sun Herald story doesn’t say why the judge removed the punitive damages claim from the case, but once he did, the Williams were left with only a $44,000 claim — their policy limits. If you read the portions of this pdf of the State Farm trial brief on the burden of allocation of damages and punitive damage, you will see they are presented pretty much as State Farm framed the issues in the Broussard case, where State Farm got dinged for punitive damages following a directed verdict.
Obviously, Judge Beer accepted State Farm’s position that there was an arguably reasonable basis for it to deny wind payments, and he apparently also accepted State Farm’s view that it is was not bad faith in and of itself to send the issue of allocation of damages to the trier-of-fact. This is different from Judge Senter’s view in Broussard. But remember, Judge Senter also saw testimony by a State Farm expert that there was some percentage chance that some damage was caused to the Broussards’ roof by wind, and he leaned on State Farm heavily because, despite this evidence, State Farm had paid nothing. One-and-a-half days into the Williams trial, I’m not sure if the evidence presented or upcoming was similar or not. Nevertheless, it’s apparent to me Judge Beer’s take on the law was quite different from Judge Senter’s.
The amount of the settlement was not disclosed, but this paragraph from the story might be an indication:
"I will say I feel like we’ve won a moral victory," Michelle Williams said as she and her husband left the courtroom.
Moral victory? Uh-oh. Isn’t that what the candidate says who finishes third in the Iowa caucuses?