Residents taking insurance companies to city court

Published 7:19 am Sunday, September 26, 2021

The wheels of justice are turning in Lake Charles City Court. Two weeks ago, a property owner’s case against his insurance company was decided. City Court Judge Ron Richard ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the homeowner, finding the insurance company’s behavior “arbitrary and capricious” violating its duties owed the insured, according to records from that office. So far, about 200 cases have been filed in city court that have to do with how insurers have dealt with the insured after property was damaged by Hurricanes Laura and Delta.

“This is a record judgment for the city and the first judgment in city court to provide a gauge for homeowners, attorneys and insurance companies,” Richard said. “I want the public to know that the wheels of justice don’t have to turn quite as slow as they may think.”

City courts exercise concurrent jurisdiction with the district court in civil cases where the disputed amount does not exceed $50,000. Lake Charles City Court is for residents of Ward 3. In this instance, the insurance company could be on the hook for over $200,000.

“One of the jurisdictional limitations of this court is the amount in dispute,” said Russ Stutes, a Lake Charles attorney. “However, under La. Code Civ. P. art. 4841 (B), the amount in dispute “does not include interest, court costs, attorney fees or penalties.”

Stutes called city court, “a cost-efficient and expedient option.”

“The city court, by its very nature, is expeditious. Therefore, what generally takes more time in state or federal courts proceeds in a matter of months in city court, rather than years,” Richard said.

“Judge Bice and Judge Richard are also very accommodating for pro se (self-represented) plaintiffs and defendants,” Stutes said.

The stay-at-home order in March caused a backlog of civil litigation in Louisiana with no promise of catch-up any time soon, disheartening for homeowners whose insurance claims were delayed, denied or underpaid after Hurricane Laura. Hurricanes Delta, Zeta and now Ida compounded problems in getting courts to trial. Lowering the jury trial threshold amount further compounded the problem. However, it is important to note that Louisiana has introduced measures to streamline the process.

Louisiana generally recognizes the right to trial by jury, Stutes explained. However, exclusions have to do with not only the amount of money involved, but the type of claim.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job right if I didn’t add a disclaimer that this is not legal advice,” Stutes said. “I encourage anyone that reads this to consult with an attorney who can provide more information based on the facts and circumstances of their situation.”

Hurricane Laura was so devastating and the reaction of insurance companies so lacking that it has caused people who probably never considered seeking help from an attorney to do so, Stutes said.

“Even if you go talk with a lawyer, it doesn’t mean you’ll have to take action,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to find out what rights you may be entitled to. Ultimately, what you do is your decision.”