On Sept. 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike ripped through Texas, bringing heavy rain and winds and plenty of property damage. It also introduced many families to nightmare negotiations with their insurance companies over property damaged in the storm.
One such couple, Joseph Hayes Jr. and Joanne Hayes, both in their 80s, suffered extensive damage to the exterior and interior of their secondary home in the Clear Lake area of Houston, which the family has owned since 2004. The couple’s oldest grandson, Blake Hayes, lives in the home with his wife, Leanne, and three children.
As a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Joseph Hayes held an insurance policy with the United Services Automobile Association (USAA). While waiting for USAA to send an adjuster, the couple had Brinkman Roofing, an independent roofing company, to inspect the roof. The Brinkman representative inspected the roof and recommended that the roof be replaced, at an estimated cost of $11,593.
After the storm, the insurance company sent several adjusters to look at the house, and they submitted contradictory findings. Cynthia Melena, the first adjuster sent out by USAA, denied the Hayes family a full roof replacement. She claimed that there were no torn, creased or missing shingles to the roof, and therefore, no wind damage from Hurricane Ike. Despite the facts that there were leaks in the interior of the home from the roof. Melena noted that the shingles were “unsealed,” however.
When the family complained about Melena’s findings, USAA sent a second adjuster, Steven Taylor, who reiterated that the roof did not need to be replaced.
When the Hayes family continued to protest that their roof needed replacement, yet another adjuster, Jack Berke, came out to the house. Berke, too, said the roof did not need to be replaced, but he did note that a roof-mount power attic vent needed to be replaced because of hurricane damage and that seven shingles on the roof also needed to be replaced. He said damage to the house amounted to around $12,000.
Finally, a fourth adjuster, Peter Weakly, was sent out to the home at the request of the Hayes, and he acknowledged that between 40 percent and 60 percent of the shingles were “lifted” or “not sealed,” but that in his opinion, the damage was not caused by wind from Hurricane Ike.
According to the appellate court opinion in USAA vs. Hayes, Joseph Hayes testified at trial that it was “obvious” that “the shingles were out of place after the storm” and said the roof was “wavy in its entirety” in a way that it hadn’t been before the storm. Many shingles were lifted high enough that the nail head tore through them, but the adjustors insisted that the damage wasn’t serious enough to require a new roof, according to Rene Sigman of the Houston firm Mostyn Law.
USAA eventually paid for some repairs, but would not pay to fund a full replacement of the roof. The company said the Hayes family should be able to lift up the shingles and hand-seal them with a caulking gun. USAA maintained this position during the trial of this case in May 2013.
“It’s kind of ridiculous for an insurance company to expect someone at that age, or at any age, to get on a roof and start hand-sealing individual shingles with a caulk gun,” Sigman said.
Sigman and Randy Cashiola took the Hayes couple’s claim against USAA to the 165th Civil District Court in Harris County, Texas. At the conclusion of the trial in district court, the jury ruled in the Hayes family’s favor, awarding them $20,000 for damage to the roof, garage door and exterior, $5,000 for damage to the garage and inside the home, $2,000 due to USAA’s “failure to comply with its duty of good faith and fair dealing, and $30,000 because USAA’s conduct was committed knowingly.” In addition, the jury awarded the Hayes family $237,500 for attorney’s fees in trial and $50,000 in court of appeals.
However, the district court judge overseeing the case, who has since retired, reversed this decision in a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV)—in other words, she chose to overturn a majority of the jury’s findings and award, but did award the Hayes family $20,000 in actual damages, plus pre- and post-judgment interest, and $56,421 in taxable court costs. But the district court judge reduced the Hayes family’s attorney fees to $0, citing excessive demand.
The Judge’s ruling was appealed to the 1st Court of Appeals in Texas.
On Aug. 30, 2016, an appellate court upheld part of the district court’s decision and asked the district court to reconsider the matter of attorney’s fees and court costs. After a long wait, the Hayes family can celebrate a win for the time being. “Justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied,” Sigman said. “Nobody gave up.”
For Joseph and Joanne Hayes, the fight is not quite over. Although the appellate court judge remanded the case back to the district court for retrial, the USAA may try to appeal the case to the Texas Supreme Court.
“They wanted this to be done with, and they wanted the roof to be fixed,” Sigman said. “They haven’t received any money since the trial verdict because of USAA’s appeal. It’s unfortunate because they are still waiting on final resolution of their case.”
No matter how long it takes, neither Sigman nor Mostyn Law will back down from a fight with insurance companies for homeowners’ rights. “Joseph and Joanne Hayes stuck with the fight, and we stuck with the fight for them,” Sigman said. “We didn’t give up, and we live to fight another day now.”
Read more from Steve and Amber Mostyn on the issues surrounding insurance companies after a disaster.