Monday, March 09, 2009

Farmers Insurance customers are STILL waiting for their money

$117 million in Farmers refunds for Texas policyholders has been in limbo 7 years

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – It's becoming known as the case of the missing insurance refunds.

Back in the fall of 2002, Farmers Insurance and state regulators agreed to resolve allegations that the company had overcharged customers with a $117 million settlement that included refunds and lower rates for nearly half a million policyholders.

Shortly after the agreement was announced, it was challenged by a group of Farmers policyholders, who insisted it was a bad deal for them. Although a state judge upheld the settlement, his decision was overturned by an appeals court and then taken to the Texas Supreme Court – which sent the legal dispute back down for further deliberations.

And so the case sits unresolved – going on seven years – and Farmers customers are still waiting for their money.

"Farmers has worked closely with the Texas Department of Insurance and remained ready to implement the agreed-on settlement for several years," said Michelle Levy, a spokeswoman for Farmers in Texas. "We're ready to take action, but there's nothing we can do until the courts have decided this."

'No longer viable'

Joe Longley, attorney for the Farmers policyholders, said the amount is a slap at policyholders.

"The settlement amount was a fraction of what Farmers took from their customers in Texas and what they are continuing to take. Refunds should be as much as 10 times" the $117 million settlement, he insisted.

The case was sent back to the 3rd Texas Court of Appeals in Austin in April 2007 and has been sitting there since.

Longley said he believes the case should be sent back to trial court because all the deadlines and conditions of the original settlement have long passed.

For a lot of reasons, he said, the settlement is "no longer viable" and must be redone.

The attorney general's office, meanwhile, is trying to have the settlement certified as a class action representing all Farmers customers in the state. Such a certification could invalidate other claims against the company.

Mold beginnings

The agreement came after the company had threatened to pull out of the Texas home insurance market because of massive mold losses. Company officials also were stinging from repeated attacks by Gov. Rick Perry, who made Farmers his favorite target in his 2002 race for governor.

Perry's appointed insurance commissioner at the time, Jose Montemayor, hammered out the agreement with Farmers, apparently without consulting the governor, who was unhappy with the terms.

In the years since, Farmers has stayed on the good side of the insurance department, even winning approval from current Commissioner Mike Geeslin last month to increase rates by double-digit percentages for hundreds of thousands of customers.

Farmers is now the third-largest property insurer in Texas behind State Farm and Allstate, providing coverage to about 714,000 homeowners.

Alex Winslow of Texas Watch, a consumer group active in insurance issues, said the stalled Farmers settlement is an example of the flawed system of regulation in Texas

"Due process is a right for everybody, including insurance companies. But seven years is too long," Winslow said.

He compared the Farmers settlement to the "sweet deal" that Allstate received from the state last year when it settled allegations of overcharges in homeowners insurance. Allstate agreed to refund $51.6 million to its customers but was let off the hook for another $19.2 million by Geeslin, who defended the settlement as a "positive step" for ratepayers and the Texas insurance market.

Texas Watch is backing legislation filed by Democrats in the Senate and House that would require prior state approval of insurance rate increases. Currently, companies can raise rates once they notify the insurance department, which has the right to review those rates and decide whether they are justified.

Industry's stance

The insurance industry opposes prior government approval of rate increases.

"Instead of chasing the short-sighted goal of artificial price fixing, we should stick with the goal of creating a well-regulated competitive marketplace that can handle our state's tough climate efficiently and still attract companies and capital," said Beaman Floyd of the Texas Coalition for Affordable Insurance Solutions, an industry group.

Levy of Farmers emphasized that her company agreed to pay refunds to its customers and has been blocked from doing so by the class action intervention filed by Longley, an Austin attorney.

"They have left Farmers unable to implement the settlement, including retrospectively reducing rates and adjusting certain rating factors," she said.

Longley contends that the company's rates are still too high, which Levy disputed.

Longley also has a separate class action case against Farmers pending in federal court in Oklahoma City. That suit centers on management fees charged by Farmers that are reflected in premiums paid by customers in Texas and several other states.

The state's other long-running dispute over insurance rates, involving State Farm, is scheduled to go before the insurance commissioner at a March 30 hearing.

State Farm was accused by the state of overcharging customers and ordered to lower rates by 12 percent in the fall of 2003. The case has been in the courts since then, and State Farm has won some key victories. But the company is on the hook for more than $650 million in overcharges and penalty interest dating back nearly six years.


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Monday, March 02, 2009

Farmers Insurance seeks 27.5% homeowners’ rate increase

Property insurance increases expected

Advocate business writer

Louisiana homeowners and businesses will see property insurance rates rise more this year than they have since 2006, in large part because of the financial meltdown, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said.

“I do not anticipate that it will result in double-digit increases,” Donelon said.

In 2008, Louisiana homeowners’ rates rose an average of less than 1 percent, Donelon said. In 2007, the rates were up by just over 3 percent.

This year the rates will rise somewhere between those low numbers and 10 percent, Donelon said. The same holds true for commercial property insurance and for automotive coverage.

Insurance companies’ ability to write coverage is affected by the amount of capital available, Donelon said. With investors dumping insurance sector stocks, those companies can’t write as much coverage.

Meanwhile, insurance companies are also seeing their investment portfolios take a beating, Donelon said. This also reduces the amount of coverage they can write.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-funded group in New York, investments are the principal source of declining profitability among insurers. During the first three quarters of 2008, the insurance industry’s investment gain was $28.3 billion. The fourth-quarter figures are not yet available, but even if the industry’s investments remained at that level, when stocks and interest rates continued to fall, the total would still be the lowest in 15 years.

Robert Hartwig, president of the institute, said bonds represent roughly two-thirds of insurance companies’ investments, with stocks accounting for 20 percent or less.

Low interest rates and returns on investments, in the United States and internationally, will ultimately affect the price of insurance, Hartwig said. That is because a certain part of the losses that insurers pay have always been financed by investment returns.

The effect varies by insurer, Hartwig said, “but there was no insurer that was not impacted by what happened on Wall Street last year.”

Still, the major factor influencing property insurance costs in Louisiana remains the threat of a major hurricane, Hartwig said. An active season is expected in 2009, and reinsurers are raising their rates to reflect that.

Donelon said that with less coverage available, the law of supply and demand kicks in and prices rise.

Already, State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., the largest insurer in Louisiana, has asked to increase homeowners’ rates an average of 14 percent statewide. Farmers Insurance Exchange, the sixth-largest firm in the state, is seeking a 27.5 percent increase in homeowners’ rates and the institution of a 5 percent hurricane deductible. Louisiana Farm Bureau, the fifth-largest company, is seeking a 10.2 percent increase.

The Insurance Department is reviewing those requests, but Donelon said his preliminary review is that neither State Farm nor Farmers will receive a double-digit increase.

Farm Bureau’s request has only recently been filed.

However, Brooke Cluse, a spokeswoman for State Farm, said the rate request is not directly related to the state of the economy or financial markets.

“We have had a tremendous amount of weather-related losses in the state over the past several years, and while many insurers have left the state, State Farm is here and committed to our policyholders in Louisiana. We have demonstrated our commitment by helping our customers recover from unexpected loss and they can expect nothing less in the future.”

Farmers Insurance officials could not be reached for comment Friday.


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Farmers Insurance Company sued again

Lawsuits keep coming in Burlingame landslide
Shasta Kearns Moore / The Southwest Community Connection

HILLSDALE — Two more lawsuits have been filed in Multnomah County Court by the owners of the second home destroyed in the Burlingame Place landslide. The complaints totaling more than $1.7 million name Dave and Kathei Hendrickson, Farmers Insurance Company and the family’s insurance agent, Lynette Sanders.

Dr. Yuan Chou and his wife, Siukee Tong, barely escaped their home in the early morning on Oct. 8 when the house owned by the Hendricksons slid down the hillside and shoved their house off its foundation.

Both houses were destroyed — along with five other homes that were damaged — and the resulting debris has since been removed from the site.

Chou and Tong’s attorney, Jim Martin, said his clients are suing Farmers’ Insurance Company for not covering the damage to the home. Farmers’ Insurance has refused to pay, saying the policy does not cover earth movement.

But Martin argues that the damage to the home was not directly caused by earth movement.

“It is our position that the Hendricksons’ house is a flying object that landed on my client’s house, which is covered in the policy,” he said, adding that photographs show no mud on the Chou home. “So my client’s house was not damaged by land movement, it was damaged by a house falling on it.”

The family is also suing the Hendricksons for trespass, private nuisance and strict liability.

The complaint lists several remodels and landscaping projects that the Hendricksons undertook before the slide and argues that their negligence in performing these projects contributed to the landslide.

As stated in the complaint: “Upon information and belief, homes such as the Defendants’ home, do not slide down hillsides that has been there for 80 years without Defendants’ negligence in the care of their home, remodeling of their home and most importantly their landscaping as well as water management (sic).”

Farmers’ Insurance, who is also the Hendricksons’ insurer, has agreed to defend the them against this suit, according to their private attorney.

Burlingame Place remains closed
The section of Burlingame Place where Dave and Kathei Hendrickson’s home once stood will be closed until the shoulder can be rebuilt, say city officials.

Now a steep drop off to Terwilliger Boulevard, Bureau of Environmental Services spokesman Ross Caron said it would be too dangerous to open the street and risk damage to the road.

City engineer Doug Morgan said tests have shown the slope to be stable so far, but that it would be too risky to allow traffic on that section of road without the lateral support of a shoulder.

“Because of the steepness of the scarp, it’s not considered safe to reopen Burlingame,” Morgan said.

It is the responsibility of the homeowners to rebuild the shoulder, which could cost anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000, Caron estimated.

Caron said officials can eventually use city code to force the property owners to rebuild the hillside, but because the road closure is no longer impacting a major thoroughfare, they can afford to give the Hendricksons more time.

“It’s a delicate balancing act between being patient and compassionate and moving the process along quickly,” Caron said, adding city officials are trying to “treat them as they would like to be treated.”


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