Oklahoma 1999

Lessons on insurance reporting from a nine-year-old disaster

Before we turn the page on the deadly tornadoes in the south that killed fifty-seven this week, according to the latest count, it’s worth reminding business reporters and editors of a now-forgotten string of tornadoes that hit Oklahoma in May 1999. Those tornadoes—including one that unleashed 318 mph winds, the highest ever recorded—killed forty-eight, triggered 52,000 insurance claims, and caused $450 million in property damage.

In May 2006, seven years later, a jury in Grady County levied a $13 million judgment against a unit of State Farm Insurance Co., including $10 million in punitive damages, finding that the insurer “recklessly,” “intentionally,” and “with malice” denied legitimate claims brought by a class of Oklahoma policyholders.

The case centered around State Farm’s use of a Houston-based engineering giant, Haag Engineering Co., which, plaintiffs alleged, was employed intentionally to undervalue damage to homes or claim the damage was caused by other factors—like faulty construction—instead of tornadoes.

The jury further found “clear and convincing evidence” that State Farm recklessly disregarded its duty to act fairly and in good faith with members of the class action by employing Haag Engineering and an independent adjustment company. It also said State Farm acted intentionally and with malice in dealing with customers in the use of these two companies.

State Farm said it strongly disagreed with the Oklahoma verdict and appealed.

State Farm, by the way, hired Haag Engineering to adjust and inspect claims after Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. It suspended Haag from Katrina work after this jury verdict hit the following spring. In September 2006, federal prosecutors in Mississippi investigating allegations of insurer wrongdoing related to Katrina claims subpoenaed records from the Oklahoma case.

Soon, communities in the south will begin to try to recover from this latest disaster and many people, thousands of them, will turn to their insurance companies with their families’ financial future on the line.

The decision to pay or not pay will be up to insurers—don’t let anybody tell you differently. Regulation of insurer conduct on claims is essentially non-existent, and policyholders will have two choices: accept what the insurer offers, or sue.

For business reporters and their readers, there are a couple things to keep in mind: For one thing, insurer claims performance is a black box. After a disaster, or anytime, no one—no one but insurers—knows such basic information as how many lawsuits were filed against an insurer, how many claims were denied outright and how much insurers paid compared to how much policyholders claimed.

The last metric, let’s call it “The Audit’s Payout-To-Claim Ratio” ™ does not exist in the insurance industry, and yet, when you think about it, it’s the only one policyholders, the market in so-called personal-lines insurance, really care about.

So, the market cannot—and regulators will not—penetrate this cloak of secrecy. That’s an asymmetry of information—sellers have extensive information, buyers have almost none, a recipe for gross inefficiencies, not to mention gross injustice. And that’s something to keep in mind when writing about insurer profits.

Other lessons for business reporters and editors: First, no matter how hard they try, they will never know how insurers performed after the tornadoes of 2008; and second, for clues, they will have to watch the courts, and that will take years.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.