U.S. District Judge James D. Cain Jr. of the Western District of Louisiana at Lake Charles has come up with a plan designed to quickly settle the thousands of hurricane damage lawsuits expected to be filed against insurance companies. The two-part plan involves a streamlined settlement conference and mediation if that doesn’t resolve the issues.
Hurricane Laura came ashore near Cameron Parish on Aug. 27, and Hurricane Delta hit the same area six weeks later. Laura was the fifth strongest storm to ever impact the United States. It caused the deaths of at least 42 people, damaged more than 400,000 structures and inflicted more than $14 billion in damages to western Louisiana and southeastern Texas.
Devastation to the Edwin F. Hunter Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Lake Charles from Laura’s winds may necessitate a complete rebuilding, the judge said.
Judge Cain in Case Management Order No. 1 said, “The court desires, within the powers granted unto it, to prevent increased difficulties to the parties involved, to bring as much of this litigation to resolution as expediently and justly as possible, and to allow Southwest Louisiana to move forward with its recovery.”
The judge said since Delta’s landfall, the U.S. District Court at Lake Charles “has become, and presumably will continue to be, inundated with insurance coverage-related litigation linked to the hurricanes. The devastation in the parishes of the Lake Charles Division, including to the courthouse itself, is anticipated to interfere with the timely handling of this litigation,” the judge said.
Cain has established a streamlined settlement conference and mediation protocol called the Streamlined Settlement Process or SSP. The local protocol is based on discovery protocols established by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas following Hurricane Harvey and by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York following Hurricane Sandy.
“These disaster protocols call for prompt sharing of specified information to promote uniformity, to facilitate prompt evaluation and communication of the litigation, and to facilitate the path to expedited mediation,” the case management order says.
The judge said nothing in the order should be construed to limit the information to be exchanged in any particular case, and attorneys for each party are encouraged and expected to provide any information that would reasonably be helpful to their adversary in evaluating the case for mediation purposes.
“The parties are strongly urged to meet and confer in good faith on the exchange of information that they desire to use even when it is not required to be shared pursuant to this order,” the judge said.
The order says within 30 days of the disclosure deadline in all hurricane cases all parties shall conduct an informal settlement conference among all parties and their attorneys. Within 15 days, attorneys for the plaintiffs (those filing the suits) and the defendants (the insurance companies) shall meet to confer and discuss a mutually convenient time, date and manner for the conference.
Because of COVID-19, as well as the desire to resolve the hurricane cases as quickly as possible, the order says settlement conferences may be conducted by phone or other means of electronic audio or video communication, including but not limited to Zoom, Skype or similar platforms.
Attorneys for each plaintiff and for each defendant must have full authority to resolve the case from their clients, who shall be readily available by telephone if circumstances for that particular settlement conference require assistance.
Cases that don’t resolve during the initial settlement conference will be set for a formal mediation. Patrick A. Juneau, the court-appointed special master, will then assign each hurricane case with a neutral (mediator) from a court-approved list.
The court-designated other neutrals or mediators are Cade R. Cole, Thomas R. Juneau Sr., Robert J. David Jr., Jeffrey M. Cole, and Judges Charlotte L. Bushnell and Joel G. Davis, both effective upon their retirement on Jan. 1, 2021.
After scheduling of the mediation, the attorney for each party will submit confidential statements solely to the appointed mediator. Plaintiffs will be present with their attorneys and the defense attorney will also be present. A representative of the defendant is welcome but doesn’t have to attend if his attorney has full authority to resolve the case.
Patrick Juneau, the special master, shall administer, coordinate and preside over the SSP. His authority includes the power to order parties and/or party representatives with full power of settlement to submit briefing, engage in limited discovery and attend settlement conferences and/or meetings. Cade R. Cole will serve as deputy special master.
Any party to a hurricane case petitioning to opt out of the settlement conference and mediation will have to file a formal motion with the court that details the reasons supporting that decision.
Exhibit A to Case Management 1 contains definitions that apply to cases, information and documents that have to be produced by the insured person and information and documents that have to be produced by the insurer.