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New Sandy suits accuse insurance companies of shaving settlements

An aerial photo taken on Nov. 14, 2012,

An aerial photo taken on Nov. 14, 2012, after superstorm Sandy moved through Long Island, shows damage to house on an island near Jones Beach. It is not known if it is part of the legal action. Credit: Doug Kuntz

Superstorm Sandy victims opened a new front Friday in the growing scandal over flood insurance claims, accusing corporations and federal officials of shaving thousands of dollars from settlements by not accounting for sales taxes.

In four federal class-action lawsuits, the homeowners accuse the National Flood Insurance Program and three insurance companies of manipulating software to systematically exclude tax from rebuilding estimates. The move, lawyers say, left storm victims to pay up to $20,000 in taxes on labor and supplies.

The allegations differ from earlier complaints that sparked a political uproar over whether engineering reports were forged to cheat homeowners. Yet the end goal, lawyers say, was the same in both instances.

"This is yet another device, analogous to the fraudulent engineering reports, where insurance companies are using experts to undercut payments to homeowners," said John W. Houghtaling, a lawyer who filed three cases in the Eastern District of New York for storm victims in East Atlantic Beach, Lido Beach and Rockaway Point.

The fourth case was filed in New Jersey.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the flood insurance program, declined to comment. The insurers named in the suits -- Selective Insurance Co. in Branchville, New Jersey, Wright National Flood Insurance in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the Standard Fire Insurance Co. in Hartford -- did not respond to requests for comment.

The allegations of fraud after the 2012 storm have shaken FEMA. Two top officials at the National Flood Insurance Program have stepped down. And the agency has vowed to establish a process for all 144,000 Sandy victims who filed flood-insurance claims to have their cases reviewed.

The New York State attorney general, meanwhile, has launched a criminal probe.

The lawsuits filed Friday hinge on computer programs used by insurers to calculate the cost of rebuilding storm-damaged homes. Those reports, which dictated how much each homeowner received, included line-by-line estimates and said sales tax was included.

Yet lawyers for homeowners say companies rigged the software to leave out the tax. An adjuster who reviewed 100 claims on behalf of the lawyers who filed the suits in New York said that 80 percent omitted the tax.

On Long Island, where the sales tax is 8.6 percent, homeowners were shortchanged about $8,600 for every $100,000 in storm damage, lawyers said. In New Jersey, the sales tax is 7 percent.

"It's fraud on its face," said Chip Merlin, a lawyer for the New Jersey homeowners, who filed a claim for their vacation house in Toms River.

Anita Jacobson and her husband Steve, a retired Newsday sportswriter, who filed one of the suits, lost nearly everything on the ground floor and in the basement when Sandy swamped their Lido Beach home. Their repairs cost nearly $200,000 but their flood insurance settlement only covered $85,000. "It's so outrageous what these insurance companies have done," said Jacobson, a 75-year-old culinary school instructor. "These people are disgusting."

Washington underwrites flood insurance. But FEMA hires insurance companies to administer the policies and determine how much to pay out on claims.

The government pays the settlements, but homeowners say insurers still lowball claims. That is primarily, they say, because the program penalizes insurers caught overinflating claims. There are no penalties for underpayments. So lawyers say insurers err on the side of paying too little -- and pressure engineers and adjusters to skew reports to avoid any chance of paying too much.

FEMA has promised to revamp the program to eliminate any incentives to cheat homeowners.

"First it was the engineering reports," Merlin said. "Now it's the estimates."

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