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In an unusual move, the federal judge presiding in most of the hundreds of Mississippi cases involving insurance claims resulting from Hurricane Katrina has asked counsel for suggestions on how to resolve the cases in the next 12 months. Mindful of the long line of people waiting for their day in court, U.S. District Senior Judge L.T. Senter Jr. of Gulfport, Miss., sent a letter to all the lawyers involved seeking their advice on finding a “just, speedy and inexpensive resolution of these cases.” The judge asked lawyers to send him, by Aug. 25, a confidential memo of no more than three pages giving him their “candid assessment of the alternatives you believe offer the best procedures.” ‘Outside the box’ Senter told counsel that he wanted to explore with them alternatives to trying each case individually, such as trying cases representative of larger numbers of claims. He added that the effectiveness of trying representative cases depends on “the parties’ willingness to follow the outcome of the representative cases whether favorable or not.” Senter said that after he reviews the suggestions, he will scheduled a conference to discuss them. Derek A. Wyatt of the Barrett Law Office, a Lexington, Miss.-based plaintiffs’ firm handling about 2,000 pending Katrina-related insurance cases, said that the court has appealed to the members of the bar to help it identify common issues of law and fact. Of particular interest are “legal issues that have to do with the construction of the policy themselves,” Wyatt noted. Phil Supple, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance of Bloomington, Ind., said that State Farm is giving Senter’s request “careful thought and will do what we can to help the court find an efficient way of dealing with the Katrina litigation.” Randy J. Maniloff, a partner in the business insurance practice group at Philadelphia’s White and Williams who has written about this litigation but is not involved in it, applauded Senter for “thinking outside the box” in trying to find ways to speed up the long line of people waiting for their cases to be heard. “But I question how feasible it is now that [Senter] already has dealt with a lot of the legal issues, because what’s left are factual issues and everyone has their own set of facts they bring to it,” Maniloff said. Senter ruled in June that a judge or jury must determine the extent to which wind or water caused damage, and that clearly expressed water-damage exclusions are enforceable. He also noted that ambiguous exclusions could make some homeowners’ policies unenforceable. In an opinion issued on Aug. 15 in the first case that he heard in a bench trial, Senter decided that Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. had compensated its insured adequately and dismissed the case. Leonard v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., No. 05-cv-475 (S.D. Miss.).

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