In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a jury’s verdict that State Farm committed fraud in the adjustment of insurance claims arising out of Hurricane Katrina. A copy of the Court’s decision can be accessed at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-513_43j7.pdf. The case involving Weisbrod Matteis & Copley clients, Cori and Kerri Rigsby, represents an important victory for both whistleblowers and insurance policyholders.
The Rigsbys sued State Farm under the False Claims Act (“FCA”), which permits individuals to sue on behalf of the federal government. The Rigsbys were former claim adjusters employed by a contractor retained by State Farm to adjust insurance claims in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They alleged, and eventually proved at trial in a bellweather case, that State Farm fraudulently represented to the government that Katrina-related damage to the exemplar home was caused by flood rather than wind. State Farm sold both federal government-backed flood insurance policies and general homeowners policies. By misclassifying wind damage as flood damage, State Farm was able to shift liability to the federal government and away from State Farm.
State Farm sought to dismiss the case on a procedural technicality by arguing that one of the Rigsbys’ former lawyers had prematurely leaked the lawsuit in violation of the FCA’s “seal” requirements. Pursuant to those “seal” requirements, lawsuits brought under the FCA must be filed under seal for a minimum of sixty days. State Farm argued that the seal was broken when the Rigsbys’ former lawyer disclosed the lawsuit to the news media and others.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court rejected State Farm’s contention that the seal violation required dismissal of the Rigsbys’ lawsuit. The Court recognized that the seal requirement is intended to benefit the government because it prevents those suspected of fraud from being tipped off. As a result, the Court concluded that “it would make little sense to adopt a rigid interpretation of the seal provision that prejudices the government by depriving it of needed assistance from private parties.”
With the Supreme Court’s affirmance, State Farm must now satisfy the jury’s verdict of $758,000, which represents the damages for a single home, as well as an order to pay attorneys’ fees. The Rigsbys are now ready to move forward and prove the scope of State Farm’s fraud already proven fraud, which could involve thousands of homes and billions of dollars. Indeed, the State of Mississippi contends that State Farm also improperly shifted its Hurricane Katrina losses onto Mississippi’s Homeowner Assistance Program, which was set up to pay thousands of policyholders for losses that were not covered by insurance. Mississippi has retained Weisbrod Matteis & Copley to pursue these claims against State Farm and other insurers on the State’s behalf. Stay tuned as more on these developing cases will follow.