Image: Richard Scruggs
Nicole Lacour Young  /  AP file
"He fights for the little guy, the guy who needs somebody," says one state official of Richard Scruggs.
updated 5/12/2006 4:00:38 PM ET 2006-05-12T20:00:38

A private jet is waiting for Richard Scruggs, but first the millionaire lawyer wants to squeeze in a quick lunch. Smiles and nods greet him as he walks into Lu-Cher Doe's Diner, a soul food restaurant down the street from his law office.

Everyone in the diner instantly recognizes the trim, gray-haired man in the expensive suit. Scruggs feels right at home, even though he sticks out in the crowd of T-shirt-wearing patrons seated at vinyl-covered tables.

"How are you, pretty lady?" he asks the cashier, turning on his Mississippi drawl.

"How are you doing, Mr. Scruggs?" she responds with a smile.

"Glad to see you're making lots of money," he adds.

Newsweek has called him possibly "the most influential man in America that you've never heard of," but no introductions are needed here.

Scruggs, "Dickie" to his friends and neighbors, is one of the nation's wealthiest trial attorneys. In the late 1990s, his Mississippi-based firm earned nearly $1 billion in fees for his part in reaching a landmark $250 billion settlement with tobacco companies.

Now he's using that windfall to finance his latest high-profile legal battle — suing insurance companies for denying thousands of policyholders' claims after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes.

Scruggs, already facing long odds in the eyes of some experts, recently lost a key ruling in one of his lawsuits. Despite that early setback, few legal handicappers are willing to count out someone with a track record of winning cases that nobody else could.

Many residents of southern Mississippi have turned to Scruggs for help since Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast eight months ago.

It's no different at the diner: After Scruggs finishes his meal, a waitress sidles up to his table and asks for his help in getting the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fix her trailer. Scruggs promises to draw up a strongly worded letter.

"I don't know if it will do any good, but I'll give 'em hell," says Scruggs, whose courtly manner has a way of softening his fiery rhetoric.

Less than an hour later, Scruggs is flying 20,000 feet above Mississippi in the cockpit of a Falcon 10 — one of two corporate jets the former Navy fighter pilot uses for his frequent 300-mile commutes from his home base in Oxford to the coast.

The tobacco wars made Scruggs a very rich man, but his wealth also allows him to pick fights few other lawyers can afford. Besides insurance and tobacco companies, Scruggs has battled predatory lenders, asbestos makers and HMOs.

"You can't take on State Farm and companies like that without a war chest," says former Texas insurance commissioner J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America.

"That's one of the advantages of having a guy like Scruggs involved," Hunter says. "He knows how to win big cases."

Some in the insurance industry say Scruggs' lawsuits are nothing more than an opportunistic money grab. Still, there's no denying he has a personal stake in this battle: Like his clients, he lost one of his own homes in the hurricane.

"I've made enough money for 10 lifetimes," says Scruggs, who turns 60 on May 17. "This is not a money thing for me. This is a personal thing. These are my friends, neighbors and family that are getting screwed, and I'm not going to sit still for it."

One of his clients is his brother-in-law, U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose beachfront home in Pascagoula was demolished by Katrina. (The two men are married to sisters.) Lott is suing State Farm Insurance Co. for denying his claim.

"When he called me up and said, 'Sue the bastards,' I almost fell off my chair," Scruggs says. "Trent and I are close personal friends, but we disagree obviously on most philosophical issues."

Lott, a champion of limiting lawsuits, isn't the only convert in this heavily Republican state. Katrina has turned some of Scruggs' longtime adversaries into allies.

"He fights for the little guy, the guy who needs somebody," said Mississippi's first-term Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat who's also suing insurance companies and investigating allegations they fraudulently denied claims.

"His heart is in this case," Hood said of Scruggs. "These are his people."

One of those is Tina Lee, whose home in Pascagoula was across the street from Scruggs' house before Katrina demolished both. Lee, 43, and her husband went to Scruggs for help after their insurer, MetLife Inc., denied their claim.

"I never thought I'd have to have a lawyer. I never thought I'd have to sue anybody," Lee said.

Katrina changed everything, however.

"We need lawyers now," she says.

Scruggs is the self-described "poster child" for the wave of lawsuits spawned by the wind versus water debate on the Gulf Coast.

For thousands of homeowners without flood insurance, the critical question is whether damage was caused by Katrina's 145 mph winds or by the wall of water that surged to shore. Wind damage is covered, but insurers say their policies do not cover damage from water, including wind-driven water. Policyholders argue that storm surge should not be considered flooding.

Mississippi's top insurers have said their settlement rates, which reportedly ranged from 82 percent to 96 percent of claims six months after Katrina, prove they're meeting obligations to policyholders. More than 1,500 other homeowners have signed up for a state-sponsored mediation program — an option Scruggs dismisses a "joke."

"The mediators have authority only up to a very small amount," he says. "Many are taking the money out of desperation and out of being convinced they don't have coverage."

William Bailey, special counsel to the Insurance Information Institute, says Scruggs' post-Katrina rhetoric is rife with "hyperbole" and "wildly overstated claims" that are virtually impossible for insurers to refute.

"I believe our people are honest and try to be fair," Bailey said. "For someone to come in and try to paint us with a broad brush as a bunch of crooks and thieves, it just rankles me."

In particular, Bailey claims it was irresponsible for Scruggs to announce he's getting help from a whistleblower, a high-ranking executive at a major insurance company.

Scruggs says the unnamed "insider" is feeding him documents that show insurance companies are pressuring engineering firms to alter their reports on storm-damaged homes so claims could be denied.

"It leaves the insurance companies convicted in the media just because Dickie said so," Bailey says.

The tobacco case taught Scruggs a valuable lesson that he's applying to his Katrina suits.

"These are as much political and public relations wars as they are legal wars," he says. "They try to beat you on the public relations front and the political front, and you can't ignore that."

Scruggs sees other parallels between the tobacco and insurance cases.

"The tactics are fairly similar in that they're used to getting their way, and that sort of breeds an arrogance we've learned to exploit," he says. "Because they do stupid things such as denying a United States senator's claim in full."

In the tobacco case, former Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore and Scruggs came up with a novel strategy: Instead of representing individuals, they championed efforts by states to force cigarette makers to reimburse them for Medicaid costs associated with treating sick smokers.

For the insurance case, Scruggs' legal team is employing what he calls a "sniper strategy."

Although Scruggs represents almost 3,000 policyholders, only about 700 of them are clients named as plaintiffs in his lawsuits against five insurance companies. They hope to use a handful of "symbolic" cases, including Lott's, to win favorable rulings that could pressure companies into settling many other cases.

So far, the strategy isn't working as well as Scruggs had hoped. In one case, a federal judge recently ruled that provisions in Allstate Insurance Co.'s policies that exclude damage from Katrina's flood waters are "valid and enforceable."

"It would have made it much easier for us had we won that ruling," he concedes. "But that case is still alive and well, and we're going to try it."

Getting past a judge and before a jury could be a tough task for Scruggs and other plaintiffs' lawyers, said Ronald Rychlak, an associate dean at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

"Insurance companies have been writing these policies for a long time," he said. "You've got to figure it's going to be difficult to convince a judge these contracts are ambiguous and misleading."

But all bets are off, Rychlak added, if a jury is allowed to hear emotional testimony from homeowners who have lost everything they own.

"It's the kind of case where a jury will be predisposed to favor the plaintiff," he said.

Eight months have passed since the Aug. 29 storm, and so far the pace of the legal process has frustrated Scruggs. Only one of his clients — Pascagoula police Lt. Paul Leonard — has a trial date set for his case against Nationwide Insurance Co.

With only one federal judge in Mississippi hearing these cases, Scruggs says the courts are in danger of earning "a reputation like FEMA gained (for) unresponsiveness, unpreparedness and insensitivity."

"The sense of urgency has thus far not been demonstrated by the federal judiciary," he adds. "If that's what they intend to do — park the cases and try them one at a time with one judge — then it's lights out for the homeowners."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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