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State Farm Hurricane Katrina Lawsuits in Limbo as Judge Dismisses Plaintiffs’ Lawyers in Mississippi

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A disgraced lawyer’s conduct has left dozens – perhaps hundreds – of Mississippi residents suing State Farm Insurance over Hurricane Katrina damage claims racing to find new lawyers. Now, because of a federal judge’s decision to ban lawyers affiliated with Richard “Dickie” Scruggs from representing State Farm policy holders, Mississippi plaintiffs have just 45 days to find new attorneys.

U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. in Gulfport cited ethical concerns when he dismissed a group of attorneys who had been working with Scruggs on the State Farm Hurricane Katrina lawsuits in Mississippi. Scruggs is the well-known lawyer who pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to bribe a judge. While Scruggs had withdrawn from the State Farm litigation following his indictment on bribery charges late last year, members of his legal team went on to form the Katrina Litigation Group and continued representing plaintiffs in the Hurricane Katrina lawsuits. But Senter said that any attorney affiliated with Scruggs shared in the responsibility for his ethical lapses, as they were aware of them and did nothing to stop him.

Those ethical lapses involve what the judge deemed to be “improper payments” made to Cori and Kerri Rigsby. The two sisters were employed by E.A. Renfroe & Co., an Alabama-based firm that State Farm contracted. The sisters supplied Scruggs with piles of documents they had secretly copied while employed by Renfroe. Scruggs touted the sisters as whistleblowers, but hired them as consultants and agreed to pay them $150,000 each. Payments to non-expert witnesses are limited by law, Senter said. “The payments Scruggs made to the Rigsby sisters bears no reasonable connection to any work they performed or to any expenses they incurred in testifying,” the judge wrote. “These payments were clearly improper.”

Senter’s ban applies to Barrett Law Office, Nutt & McAlister, the Lovelace Law Firm and Hesse & Butterworth and also applies to any cases against Renfroe, the firm that employed the Rigsby sisters. The judge also said the documents that the Rigsby sisters gave Scruggs can’t be used as evidence unless the plaintiffs lawyers can show they were obtained through “ordinary means of discovery.” Neither of the sisters will be allowed to testify for the plaintiffs.

State Farm was one of the largest insurers on the Gulf Coast when Katrina made landfall there in 2005. Thousands of homes were reduced to rubble by wind and the massive storm surge created by the hurricane. Normal home owners policies do not cover damages from flooding, only wind. But in the case of Katrina claims, many home owners accused State Farm and other insurance companies of attributing damage to flooding, when in reality it was caused by wind, as a way to avoid paying the full value of claims. Some insurance companies initially made offers to settle claims for only pennies on the dollar, sparking thousands of lawsuits along the Gulf Coast.

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