Dozens of Maryland families whose homes were damaged or destroyed when Tropical Storm Isabel lashed the state in September 2003 filed a lawsuit yesterday, alleging that officials throughout the National Flood Insurance Program deliberately and fraudulently low-balled their insurance claims.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, claims widespread abuses in a system the families say was supposed to make them whole after floodwaters soaked their houses. As a result of inadequate reimbursements, the claim says, the families have been forced to raid their savings to rebuild, live in cramped government-supplied trailers or subsist in homes contaminated by sewage and mold.
"They believe that they have been financially and emotionally raped," said Martin H. Freeman, whose Rockville-based law firm, Freeman & Freeman PC, represents the 141 plaintiffs from 71 families. "They also believe ... that the people who have done this to them are invulnerable and are going to get away with this."
The lawsuit names the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NFIP subcontractor Computer Sciences Corp., and various insurance companies and adjusters among 57 defendants. It singles out Homeland Security Undersecretary Michael D. Brown and acting federal insurance administrator David Maurstad, among others.
The families allege that defendants worked to violate their rights to due process and deprive them "of their health and homes" by selling policies under a promise that full payment would be made if disaster struck while they trained adjusters to authorize far less.
The lawsuit also alleges two forms of conspiracy to commit fraud, as well as contract interference and breach of contract.
For four of the five claims, the suit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages plus punitive damages for each plaintiff. It also seeks $250,000 per plaintiff for the breach of contract charge.
FEMA officials knew what was happening but did nothing to fix the problems, according to the lawsuit. Instead, a top federal official "attempted to mischaracterize the NFIP as a form of aid rather than insurance," the lawsuit states.
FEMA and CSC spokesmen said yesterday that they had not seen the suit and could not comment.
The lawsuit comes nearly 21 months after the Sept. 18, 2003, storm hit and five months after a letter was sent to FEMA, CSC and several others involved in the claims process demanding full payment on policies.
Another lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of victims last year alleging that seven insurance companies systematically shortchanged policyholders is pending in federal court.
As of yesterday, 85 Maryland families still were living in trailers, according to FEMA. The agency recently sent eviction letters to about seven trailer families that were either not working to find permanent housing or violating provisions of their leases, said spokeswoman Niki Edwards.
Maryland Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr., who testified before a congressional subcommittee reviewing the flood program this spring, said the lawsuit came as no surprise.
"Quite frankly, we're going to continue to have unhappy citizens, and we're going to continue to have litigation until the flood program gets fixed," he said.