Rachael Van Horn
Woodward, Okla. —
Nearly two years after a tornado ripped through Woodward and destroyed their homes, three Woodward families finally have hope they may be able to make their lives whole.
On Monday in Woodward County District Court, following about six days of a trial in front of District Judge Ray Dean Linder, the judge ruled in the favor of the three families against their insurance companies.
In his comments noted in the court transcript, Linder left no doubt, he found the insurance companies guilty of "bad faith" and "likely direct fraud" regarding their dealings with the plaintiffs in the days following the April 2012 tornado in Woodward.
"The court was not only surprised but it was actually shocked at some of the misdeeds or non-deeds that the defendants were guilty of in these three cases," Linder said, according to court records.
When Sterling Parks, Kim and Linda Louthan and Jeff and Mary Sharpe learned they won a little over $5 million settlement each in their case against Farmers and its subsidiary Foremost Insurance Companies, they reported feeling a little vindicated.
"When we found out the verdict, it was a different feeling and then later it was this flood of emotions," Linda Louthan said. "It was just your body going though a major release - like now we can start moving forward with our lives."
The case stems from the days after the April 2012 tornado here, when the families dealt with a Farmers adjuster who, in each case offered far less than was needed to fix their homes, they each said.
According to Jeff Marr of Marr Law Firm Oklahoma City the attorney for the plaintiffs, along with Jay Mitchel with the local firm of Mitchel, Gaston, Riffel & Riffle, the adjuster undervalued their homes and told them the homes were not structurally damaged by the storms, even when faced with independent engineering reports to the contrary.
Mitchel said the company representative also failed to pay them for benefits contained within their policies, such as alternative living expenses and additional monies to pay a general contractor called "overhead and profit," which allows a homeowner to pay for a general contractor if there is a lot of work to manage.
"The management of Farmers maintained throughout that he did fine, that he did make mistakes but they were not purposeful," Mitchel said. "But we think that is not true we think that it is an institutional practice."
None of the plaintiffs in the case will see the money Linder assigned in the judgement for at least another month and it could be substantially longer if the insurance company appeals the case,
Marr said the behavior of Farmers in this case and the many stemming from the Moore tornado is indicative of how the company does business.
"They are kicking these people when they are down," he said.
According to Marr, there have been two previous cases against Farmers where they were found by the court to have dealt with their customers in "bad faith" and the courts then fined them over $300 million in punitive damages.
"They have no intention of stopping or changing anything," Marr said. "To them, this is the cost of doing business. For every one or two or three - in this case - who stand up and say they won't take it, there are a thousand who take it, because in many cases the people don't have a choice. They are often left in a situation where their house is unlivable and they can't afford to foot the bill to stay somewhere else or fix the home themselves."
Marr believes Farmers will appeal the judgement.
In Parks' case, that means he is still paying a second mortgage he had to take out on his home to fix it, because the insurance company would not give him the money he needed to properly repair the home, he said.
In Linda and Kim Louthan's case, it means they are still renting a home to live in while also paying a mortgage on their home - a home they cannot insure because Farmers canceled them and the home is not repaired enough to be insured by another company, she said.
For Jeff and Mary Sharpe, it means they continue to live in their home that is crumbling down around them while they await a final verdict that is not appealed and they get paid enough to finally fix their home, Jeff Sharpe said.
"We still have a long way to go," Parks said. "I am sure they will appeal it and it will be tied up for another two years. But I am happy with the judgment, happy with the job my attorney did and everything and happy that that part of this is over."
In May of 2012, when Parks attempted to get his insurance company, Foremost Insurance Company, a subsidiary of Farmers Insurance Company to make good on his claim for his home that had been destroyed by the tornado here, he said. they argued that his house was not structurally damaged and it could just be fixed.
Like the other two plaintiffs, Parks hired an independent engineer who examined his home and said it should be torn down, not fixed.
According to Marr, the company used the same adjuster in each of the three cases.
That adjuster has since been fired by the company, Marr said.
So now, the Woodward families get together every once in a while and discuss how they feel about things so far.
Louthan said early on in the process she believed deeply that Farmers would finally step up and do the right thing by them all.
"But now we know, they were never going to do the right thing by anyone," Louthan said. "You know, we never went out for the major dollars, we just wanted put back where we used to be, anything else is the blessing."