“Buying insurance is like doing heart surgery, on yourself, blindfolded,” attorney John Houghtaling told a crowd of about 300 residents and business owners in the packed Lindell School auditorium last Thursday night.
Houghtaling, a managing partner at the New Orleans law firm Gauthier, Houghtaling & Williams, offered post-Hurricane Sandy advice on how to deal with insurance companies.
He specializes in disaster recovery law, and litigated about 800 cases stemming from Hurricane Katrina. Louisiana’s attorney general hired Houghtaling to protect policyholders’ rights after that storm, and his firm secured $75 million in insurance settlements for its victims. He now gives talks around the country to those in similar circumstances so they can avoid the problems he saw after Katrina.
In Long Beach, where city officials say that more than 200 homes will likely have to be rebuilt, residents say they are contending with disputes over the amount of coverage for their damaged homes and struggling to decipher the jargon in their policies.
Local attorney and former City Councilman Denis Kelly invited Houghtaling to Long Beach, because, Kelly said, he wanted people to have accurate information when it comes to dealing with their insurance companies. He acknowledged that there is misinformation being spread and that people are confused.
“Our heads are spinning,” Kelly said. “It’s overwhelming. We’re going to have to educate ourselves and fight through this.”
Houghtaling’s main message was, “Insurance companies are not your friends.”
The insurance industry, he said, spends billions of dollars — of policy premium money — to try to convince people that they are on their side. Allstate and State Farm, for example, each spent $700 million in advertising last year, he said. But there is an obvious conflict of interest.
“They’re trained to act like your ‘good neighbor,’” Houghtaling said of insurance adjusters, referring to the State Farm slogan. But, he added, “That’s the guy whose pocket the money is coming out of.”