BATON ROUGE, La. -- Louisiana's top insurance regulator said Tuesday he was ordering private insurers to give homeowners an extra year to settle their claims for damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.
By law, homeowners have only one year from the date when the damage was caused to either settle their claim or sue their insurer.
Because of the overwhelming number of unsettled claims and the extent of unresolved disputes, that one-year window is not reasonable, state Insurance Commissioner James Donelon said.
Although he cannot force insurers to abide by his directive for an extension because it is not state law, Donelon said he would consider a variety of punishments for companies that do not -- up to the revocation of their licenses to do business in Louisiana.
If insurers accept Donelon's order, victims of Katrina will have until Aug. 30, 2007, to resolve their claims. Hurricane Rita victims will have until Sept. 25, 2007.
"I'm sure the insurance industry will not be happy about this," the commissioner said.
A month ago, Donelon asked insurers to extend the deadline voluntarily -- but received no response.
Katrina caused more then $24 billion in insured losses in Louisiana, according to insurance modeling firm ISO.
The insurance industry says it has settled over 90 percent of its post-Katrina and Rita claims, but consumer advocates charge many claims were settled for a fraction of their value, leaving homeowners with not enough to rebuild.
Michael Trevino, a spokesman for Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Corp., the nation's second-largest insurer with a large market share in Louisiana, said the company would review Donelon's ruling.
Four small insurers -- Fidelity National Insurance Co., American Modern Insurance Group, Assurant Group and Balboa Insurance Group -- already have agreed to extend the deadline by a year.
Some in the industry welcomed Donelon's move.
Insurance agent Albert Pappalardo Jr., president of the Independent Insurance Agents of Greater New Orleans, said homeowners tend to settle their claims and then find more damage once contractors begin repairs. If that discovery occurs just before the one-year deadline, homeowngrs may feel pressured to file a lawsuit. Extending the window will help avoid unnecessary lawsuits, he said.