State Farm Insurance, the nation's largest home insurer, faces a new criminal investigation in Texas related to how it handled potentially tens of thousands of hurricane claims there, ABC News has learned exclusively.
Gregg Cox, who leads the public integrity unit of the Travis County District Attorney's office in Austin, confirmed to ABC News his investigators recently launched the probe after reviewing newly released communications from top State Farm managers in Texas. Some of the same communications have led to lawsuits by customers who say they were defrauded by State Farm Lloyds, the Texas subsidiary of the larger insurance company.
The documents in question relate to an alleged cover-up by State Farm management related to its denial of consumer insurance claims for a common type of roof damage that occurs during high wind events and hurricanes.
Jim Warner, a longtime homeowner in Missouri City, Texas, had been a customer of State Farm Insurance for more than 20 years before finding himself in the center of the now brewing criminal investigation. He says he had never filed an insurance claim until Hurricane Ike in 2008 and had always paid his monthly bills to State Farm on time.
However, Warner filed suit against State Farm after he says the company did not follow through on its slogan that promises, "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there." Warner always believed his policy would cover all types of damage to his roof, but when he went to file a claim he says he was shocked to learn that was not the case.
Warner's lawsuit alleges that State Farm documents establish a clear internal policy of intentionally denying consumer claims for roof damage similar to what Warner experienced. Warner's attorney, Steve Mostyn, claims the systematic denial of those types of claims may have quietly saved State Farm close to $1 billion.
Mostyn says State Farm documents obtained in the lawsuit reveal an attempt by managers to hide the company's policy of non-payment from state insurance regulators.
"They absolutely went through an effort to cover it up," Mostyn said. "These emails are coming from the top. They're setting policy. And that policy by their own admission … shows conclusively they have not paid thousands of people."
In Warner's case, his problems began after he says the high winds of Hurricane Ike caused the shingles on his roof to become "lifted." Those winds, Warner alleges in his suit, broke the seal under Warner's shingles that normally create a water-tight barrier. Warner says an independent adjuster he hired agreed the damage was extensive and recommended Warner's roof be replaced.
Warner alleges, however, State Farm repeatedly refused to admit the unsealed tabs were damage that should be paid under the policy. So Warner filed a consumer complaint with the Texas Department of Insurance, hoping the regulator could help. However, Warner's lawsuit says it was during that very investigation of his complaint to insurance regulators that State Farm began to cover up its practices of refusing to pay for this kind of damage.
ABC News reviewed documents obtained in the lawsuit including an initial draft of State Farm's response to insurance regulators about Warner's complaint. In that draft letter, State Farm clearly disclosed how the company did not pay for insurance claims related to broken seals on roofs, saying, "Regarding the detached seals, there is no coverage as this condition is not considered… physical loss."