Hurricane Rita windstorm case finally heard in county court
It took roughly a dozen years, but David and Sue James finally had their day in court to seek recovery for damage caused to their home in 2005’s Hurricane Rita.
Parties selected a jury from a pool of 60 on Tuesday, Feb. 22, in Jefferson County Judge Justin Sanderson’s 60th District Court and proceeded to commence a trial that lasted longer than a week to hear.
In the end, the plaintiffs won – mostly.
While they did not get the full amount sought, jurors did find that TWIA (Texas Windstorm Insurance Association) and its agents purposely sought to keep a just insurance award from their clients in Rita’s wake. Jurors determined the James family was shorted more than $50,000 for their insurance claim, and the panel further awarded $131,000 in attorney fees to the claimants’ legal representatives. In addition, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys at the Mostyn Law Firm, due to the delay for relief caused by TWIA, the James family is entitled to an additional $100,000 in statutory penalties and interest.
“The case marks the final civil damage suit between a homeowner and TWIA stemming from Hurricane Rita, which ravaged coastal Texas in September 2005,” according to a press release from the Mostyn Law Firm. TWIA is an insurer of last resort for Southeast Texas, but has come under intense scrutiny even from the state for its performance in providing services and insurance awards post calamity.
The decision is significant, according to the attorneys, because the jury found that TWIA “knowingly” acted in bad faith by refusing to pay the claim – which the court defined in the jury’s instructions as “actual awareness ... of the falsity, deception or unfairness of the conduct in question.”
Mostyn Law Firm, the Houston firm that represented the couple, said the jury found that TWIA had enough information to confirm its liability and settle the damage claim Jan. 29, 2007, but that it unfairly and deceptively refused to do so. Evidence presented at trial showed that after the massive storm, TWIA sent three different adjusters over a span of a year and a half. One adjuster said the home repair costs would be more than $70,000, but TWIA hid that estimate from the James family and paid only a fraction of the claim. The hidden estimate wasn’t discovered until after the James’ sued in 2007 and demanded it.
“As TWIA delayed their claim to repair the storm-damaged home, the James family lived in a travel trailer in their front yard,” attorneys reported.
Gregory F. Cox, Mark Sparks and Justin Burrow of Mostyn Law represented the James family at trial.
“TWIA knowingly violated the Texas Insurance Code,” Cox said. “That’s why penalties and interest are appropriate here. Currently, Texas law protects homeowners from insurance companies trying to ‘starve you out.’”
The defendants have not filed a notice of appeal, and within the next few days, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the couple will file a motion for entry of a final judgment and motion adjudicating taxable court costs.
Before the jury, Cox summed up why the case had to be waged in the first place.
“(TWIA) valued their pennies more than they valued these people,” Cox said. “They forgot these people are the reason TWIA exists. These are their client, their mission, and they basically turned on them.”