"It's a great day for South Mississippi."
Those were Norman Broussard's words as he and his wife Genevieve left the federal courthouse in Gulfport this afternoon. On Thursday, a jury awarded the couple $2.5 million in punitive damages in Mississippi's first Katrina slab case. Judge L.T. Senter also awarded them $223,292. That's the amount of the State Farm policy on their Brady Drive home.
The Broussards sued State Farm after the insurance company refused to pay their claim. The key factor was whether it was the plaintiff's or the defendant's responsibility to prove whether wind or water caused the damage and eventual destruction of the Broussard's house. Judge L.T. Senter, Jr. said that burden fell on State Farm, and he said the company came up short.
State Farm attorneys left the federal courthouse early Thursday afternoon in shock. Just that morning, Judge Senter issued a directed verdict for State Farm to pay Norman and Genevieve Broussard $223,292.
The judge said all the plaintiffs had to prove was that they lost their home in Katrina. He said if State Farm denied the claim based on the water exclusion in the policy, the company must prove how much damage was done by wind before the surge damage began. Wind damage was covered in the Broussard's policy while water damage was not.
The judge said since State Farm's experts couldn't determine the exact wind damage before the storm surge arrived, the insurance company was obligated to pay the entire amount.
John Banahan, an attorney for State Farm Attorney said, "I was disappointed. I was disappointed, but there are alternatives we get to consider when we move forward. I'm mainly disappointed that the jury didn't get to hear the whole case."
"We were surprised and, frankly, we were disappointed by the court's ruling," said State Farm spokesperson Fraser Engerman. "We felt the expert testimony supported a different result in our view, so we were definitely surprised and disappointed at the ruling."
The judge let the jury determine whether any punitive damages should go to the Broussards. The judge told them that to award punitive damages they must find clear convincing evidence the company denied the claim out of gross negligence or malice. The jury was convinced to the tune of $2.5 million.
WLOX asked State Farm representatives what this may mean to 200 other pending lawsuits, as well as a mass lawsuit.
Fraser Engerman said, "We're not going to speculate on that at this point. We're prepared to defend the contract in all of the cases. We're not going to speculate on what impact this ruling today may have on further cases."
The Broussards' attorneys gave limited reaction to the verdict.
"We are not going to be able to say anything other than we are very pleased with the verdict," said Jack Denton. "Obviously, and the reason we can't say anything other than that is because we have other trials coming up. We don't want to do anything that would jeopardize those other trials, be it our trials or somebody else's."
Denton and attorney Bill Walker are also representing Richard Tejerdor of Long Beach. That case goes to trial later this month.
State Farm says it is disappointed the judge made a directed verdict on the insurance claim and will likely file an appeal.