Federal Judge Hears Class Action Debate

Federal Judge L. T. Senter is weighing whether to allow an individual lawsuit filed against State Farm to proceed as a class action suit. The judge originally turned down Judy Guice's request back in December. After Senter's ruling in favor of Norman and Genevieve Broussard, Guice's attorneys asked the judge to reconsider.

The resounding theme of the Wednesday hearing was not to let the court cases to drag on. Judy Guice's attorney's told the judge that all slab cases State Farm denied because of a water exclusion should become one class action lawsuit to speed up the process. The judge also heard from several lawyers representing plaintiffs in other slab cases.

Then homeowners, most of whom have not filed suit, shared their feelings about what they believe is the best way to end their dispute with State Farm.

The property owners who stood before Judge Senter didn't hold back ask they explained the long and difficult road they've traveled since August 29th 2005. All lost their homes and all had State Farm insurance that didn't payoff. They were hoping the judge hands them some hope.

Scott Gordon of Long Beach lost his home in Katrina. He says the process of trying to collect insurance payment has been painful for him and his family.

"I would just like this to be over with as quickly as possible," Gordon said. "Everybody has been through so much and we need to have some closure on this."

Mary Sanders' house is gone. She told the court that since she and her husband are elderly, she fears she might not live long enough to see her insurance situation resolved.

Another woman, Sharon Weiss of Pass Christian testified that she had contemplated suicide because of her insurance woes.

Judy Detrush became the voice of homeowners who call themselves the "Sling Shots." The group is made up of about 100 south Diamondhead residents. She says they all have slabs, but no checks from State Farm.

"It appears to me that a class action suit is just what we need," said Detrush. "It will help people who can't afford lengthy litigation. It will help people that can't handle any more of the stress."

After State Farm denied Judy Guice's claim on her Ocean Springs home, the attorney says she was determined to fight for herself and other Katrina victims.

"I'm not good at carpentry. I can't fix roofs, but I thought, for my community, what I could do is try to help the people that didn't have the emotional and financial resources that I've been lucky enough to have and who didn't have best friends that were lawyers," said Guice.

State Farm lawyers made several points on their arguments on why this shouldn't become a class action suit. They say just because the court ruled that the company did not meet its burden its burden of proof in the Broussard case, the court should assume State Farm can't meet its burden in the rest of the slab cases.

They also say just because the Broussards were awarded punitive damages, that wouldn't automatically entitle all participants in a class action suit to also receive those punitive damages.

Another argument, State Farm intends to appeal the Broussard decision and not enough time has lapsed to warrant a class action suit based on that ruling.

Some attorneys representing Katrina slab cases said they would support the class action with some modifications so to give closure to Mississippians. Other argued against a class action because their clients could not opt out of it.

Willliam Merlin says its impossible for his 51 slab cases to fit neatly into one lawsuit, especially since not all homeowners bought the same type of coverage. He says his clients also worry about having their case in the hands of lawyers they didn't chose and whether those lawyers will have their best interest at heart.

Attorney William Merlin said, "Class counsel doesn't go to every single individual and talk to who they are and what their individual damages are, and their problems are. Everybody in this community knows they have individual problems with differing amounts of damages that need to get taken care of. Class is not going to resolve that."

The class action request is based on Judge Senter's recent decision in the Broussard slab case.  The Broussard's attorney Bill Walker testified that he doesn't support class action at this time. Jeff. The judge issued no ruling after the two hour hearing, and did not indicate when he might.

Meanwhile, Judy Guice's attorneys say they've heard from 90 homeowners asking to be part of the class action. They also want to include people who settled in mediation because the attorneys contend those people negotiated under the wrong standards for just pennies on the dollar.

In a statement released after the class action hearing State Farm said, "We fully understand what these people are going through, which is why we've worked so hard the last several months to come up with a resolution that will move us all forward."