Saturday, May 10, 2008

Texas firm taking over Katrina insurance cases

The Provost-Umphrey Law Firm based in Beaumont, Texas, is now representing about 200 policyholders whose disputes with State Farm were being handled by Dickie Scruggs and associated law firms.

Provost-Umphrey attorneys met with ex-Scruggs clients Thursday in Gulfport, said senior partner Bryan O. Blevins Jr.

"Hopefully, we can get this litigation back on track to benefit the clients and, ultimately, the courts," Blevins said Friday.

Scruggs had to relinquish the cases after he was charged in December with conspiring to bribe a North Mississippi judge. He subsequently pleaded guilty in the case. Once Scruggs was charged, State Farm asked a federal judge to dismiss other attorneys who had worked with him. A federal judge agreed to dismiss those lawyers, known as the Katrina Litigation Group.

Lexington attorney Don Barrett, who headed the Katrina Litigation Group, on April 18 wrote to the firm's 400 clients suggesting they hire Provost-Umphrey and also saying the new firm would be sending them contracts at Barrett's request.

Barrett said Friday he met managing partner Walter Umphrey during tobacco litigation. Umphrey's firm had represented the state of Texas during the 1990s lawsuits over what states spent on health-care costs related to smoking; Barrett had worked with Scruggs on Mississippi's case.

Umphrey's firm also subleases office space in Nashville from Barrett's nephew, who has a law firm there. Barrett is listed as an attorney with his nephew's firm. Barrett said he recommended the firm because it has the resources to handle the cases and Umphrey agreed to take them on, large or small.

Also on April 18, State Farm sent letters to Scruggs clients saying their attorneys had been disqualified and that any new attorney hired should contact one of the insurer's lawyers in Oxford.

The letter also said: "We would like to see if we can resolve any remaining issues without the need for further litigation" and gave policyholders a telephone number to call.

About 15 cases have since been settled out of the 178 the Katrina Litigation Group had pending in federal court. Barrett said the group had a total of 400 clients, not all of whom had filed lawsuits yet.

One couple who has settled with State Farm, Thomas and Ann Arnold, were plaintiffs in a racketeering lawsuit filed against the company by multiple policyholders. The lead plaintiff, Glenda Shows, has signed up with Provost-Umphrey, as have some other parties to that lawsuit.

Other policyholders have found their way to Coast law firms that handle insurance cases, some of whose members were miffed by the Katrina Litigation Group's decision to recommend a personal-injury law firm based in Texas.