OKTIBBEHA COUNTY, Miss.— In early January 2023, Vanessa Outlaw noticed a sewage odor wafting under her house in east Oktibbeha County, and she realized her water pipes had frozen and burst. She went to her insurance agent, Frank Chiles of State Farm Insurance, to file a claim for her pipes and the flooring of her home.
Her house had sunk a few inches; water ran underneath it and damaged her indoor floors.
“I took my entire (disability) check almost and paid to get my plumbing fixed because I didn’t have any water,” Outlaw said while explaining that mold could have grown under her house and affected her health.
When a storm hit Oktibbeha County in late January 2023, Outlaw called Chiles again: this time to make a storm-damage claim for the roof and ceiling of her house and the roof of her storage shed.
Then in late March, the tornadoes that ripped through the state caused additional destruction to Outlaw’s property.
Outlaw and her family huddled in the bathtub during the March storm, and she pulled out her cell phone to take videos of her property as wind and rain rattled her tin roof.
“I was scared we weren’t going to make it,” she said.
A tree limb fell on her roof, causing rain to pour through her house and damaging the ceiling, floor, clothes and personal mementos.
“I was thankful God spared me, but this is what I’m left with,” Outlaw said while gesturing to her white and blue mobile home, its roof covered with a tarp and held into place with tires and bricks.
The March storm also caused part of her storage shed’s roof to collapse, littering the gravel floor with debris, insulation, and planks of wood and aluminum siding. In the corner sits her late husband’s motorcycle, no longer usable with a seat that soaked up water and changed colors during the storms.
Outlaw told the Mississippi Free Press that if State Farm had paid her “back in January before all the other storms hit, I would’ve never had that much damage.”
‘I’m Not Going Away’
In late March, contractor Patrick Henderson of Patrick Construction assessed all the repairs to Outlaw’s property totaling $15,000. Outlaw cannot work due to a back injury and has been living on a monthly disability check of about $1,000 since her husband, Leander, passed two years ago.
State Farm sent Outlaw $2,000 in March but rescinded the check on May 15. Outlaw told the Mississippi Free Press that State Farm will not cover costs to repair the roof on her house because the insurer said the damage was from “wear and tear,” although she said the destruction was not present until after the storms.
After this reporter left a voicemail for agent Frank Chiles of State Farm on May 4, Outlaw received a text message updating her on the status of her claim. On May 9, the company sent her a $1,728.35 check. Outlaw said she had received little communication from State Farm before that payment arrived.
From March to May 15, State Farm sent her about $4,600 through multiple checks. This does not include the $2,000 State Farm rescinded. Outlaw’s lawyer, Rob Roberson, advised her not to cash the checks from State Farm until she receives the entire $15,000, however.
“If I cash them, then they’re going to say, ‘Oh, you settled for that,’” Outlaw said of State Farm.
Since State Farm took back the first $2,000, Outlaw fears the agency will ask her to return the other checks.
Under her insurance policy, Outlaw is covered for lightning, wind and hail damages. She and her husband had paid State Farm $329 monthly for over 30 years—upwards of $118,000.
“I’m not going away. I know my rights. I mean, I pay for insurance, I was covered, and I expect for my damages to be covered,” Outlaw said.
‘Disproportionate’ Complaints Against State Farm
In early February, Outlaw called Chiles, her State Farm agent, to visit her property when it was raining.
“There was no tarp (on the roof) so he could see that it was leaking. (Chiles said) ‘Yeah, your roof definitely needs to be fixed first.’ But I haven’t gotten anything done, and it’s been three months,” Outlaw said.
Outlaw said Chiles told her it would “take some time” for the insurance agency to investigate the claims.
“It’s not that much time in the world,” Outlaw said. “I could see if there was a fire, a suspicious fire or something, but anybody with eyes can see that I didn’t do none of this. There’s nothing I did to do this. My policy covers, so why—what are you waiting on?”
Outlaw has been going back and forth with State Farm for four months to get coverage for the destruction—and her complaint isn’t an outlier. Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney said his office was aware of complaints about State Farm’s claims practices.
“We have had some very high-level conversations with State Farm, and I actually put them on notice a week ago Friday that they had to appear in our office for a hearing on the claims practice,” Chaney told the Mississippi Free Press on May 17. “They’re actually coming voluntarily in June.”
Andy Case, the consumer services director for the Mississippi Insurance Department, said his department had received numerous reports about State Farm.
“We are getting complaints, and we think that the complaints that we’re getting regarding State Farm are disproportionate to other insurers right now,” Case said. “… What we would really like to see is insurers doing a little bit better job of hand-holding and explaining to people the claims process.”
‘What Are You Waiting On?’
Vanessa Outlaw said Jordan Maloney, a claims specialist for State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, alleged her shed was the only defect on her property and that the roof of her mobile home had no damages from the storms.
Maloney climbed a ladder to the roof but did not look at the split running through the middle of the tin, Outlaw said.
“I said, ‘It’s raining inside my house. Are you kidding?’” Outlaw said. “‘… There’s a big hole up there.’”
“‘Oh, it must be from wear and tear,’” Outlaw said Maloney responded, then adding, “I said, ‘There was no wear and tear until the storm.’”
The Mississippi Free Press attempted to contact Maloney at a phone number Outlaw provided as well as through State Farm office lines but was unsuccessful.
About two years ago, Chiles and another State Farm agent inspected Outlaw’s property because she had to transfer the insurance account’s ownership from her late husband to herself.
“There was no damage,” Outlaw said. “There was none of this, and (Chiles) knows this.”
She said Chiles complimented how well-kept her home was at the time.
“And it’s nothing I got against Frank Chiles,” Outlaw said on May 5, 2023. “I’m paying for insurance; I’ve obviously got damages. You know, we’ve been having storms back to back to back, and they’re just letting stuff sit here and fester.”
Rob Roberson, who is also a state representative for Oktibbeha and Winston counties, confirmed that he is looking into the allegations Outlaw and other clients have made against State Farm. He could not provide more information on the record, citing legal concerns.
Outlaw paid her insurance bill in January, February, March and April. However, she said she refused to pay May’s balance until State Farm gave her the entire $15,000 to cover the damages to her home.
“You was getting my money; you wasn’t asking if my money was worth it,” Outlaw said of State Farm. “It may not be worth it to you, but this is my home. This is all I got.”
‘Promptly, Courteously, Efficiently’
The Mississippi Free Press called Chiles to clarify Outlaw’s policy, but Chiles said to talk to the “claims people” and that he could not provide contact information for the “claims people.”
Outlaw provided contact information for three State Farm claims specialists, but none responded to the Mississippi Free Press’ interview requests. This reporter attempted to reach a fourth claims specialist but was unsuccessful.
The Mississippi Free Press contacted media specialist Roszell Gadson, who covers State Farm’s southern branches, for an interview. He declined to speak about Outlaw’s case but said the agency was working with customers to discuss their claims for property damage and sent a statement by email.
“We take pride in our customer service and are committed to paying what we owe, (sic) promptly, courteously, and efficiently,” Gadson wrote.
‘I Thought State Farm Was A Good Insurance’
Walking through her kitchen, Outlaw stands by the sink, where the floor has sunken in from water damage.
“I got to live here in this house,” Outlaw said. “I’m walking on a floor that probably could collapse with me at any time. There’s so many weak spots in the floor.”
She feared falling through the floor when she was home alone, especially since her recent back surgery caused her mobility to decline.
Outlaw tried multiple contractors before eventually finding Patrick Construction to make the repairs to her home. Owner Patrick Henderson told the Mississippi Free Press this was his first time working with State Farm.
“(Outlaw’s) been going through this for a minute,” Henderson said, “and I thought State Farm was a good insurance (company) … I don’t know what the problem is with that because she’s got a lot of damage.”
Henderson said he told State Farm that the longer Outlaw waited for payment, the more damages her property would receive. He noted the tarp on the roof of Outlaw’s home and said he had to go out and fix it every time it rained.
“Ain’t no telling what the rain will mess up again,” Henderson said.
Henderson confirmed the $15,000 estimate he gave Outlaw and said he actually thought the repairs would cost more than that.
“I’ve had to deal with a lot of folks on the insurance claims,” Henderson said. “The adjuster will come on out and do what he got to do, and then the next week or so they got the check. But I ain’t never known State Farm to be like that.”
However, Case said contractors and adjusters do not always know how much a project will cost when making a price assessment, which could be why State Farm did not pay Outlaw the rest of the $15,000.
“It is very common for a contractor’s estimate to maybe come a little higher and the interest being a little low,” Case said. “Somewhere in the middle is where they should be.”
‘I Know I’m Not The Only One’
In mid-May, Outlaw switched to Allstate insurance and is paying about $147 monthly—less than half of what she paid State Farm. Her home is uninsured until it is repaired.
Outlaw wants answers for herself and others who have had problems with State Farm not issuing full payment for claims.
“I know I’m not the only one dealing with this,” she said. “And I just, my heart goes out to the people that was really damaged down there that had that tornado (in Amory and the Delta). If they’re dealing with this, can you imagine how those people feel?”
In July 2022, State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, a subsection of State Farm, was set to pay the federal government $100 million for allegedly mishandling flood-insurance claims from Hurricane Katrina. The lawsuit lasted 16 years before the federal government reached the verdict.
In 2016, State Farm also had to pay $750,000 to the federal government and Cori and Kerri Rigsby, sisters and former adjusters from South Mississippi who sued State Farm for allegedly placing wind damage claims under the flood damage category after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Rigbys received 30% of that money, and the federal government received 70%.
“And when I found out that all of those people in Katrina, a lot of them with State Farm, that (the insurer) wouldn’t help them people, it broke my heart,” Outlaw said. “I’m like, well I don’t stand a chance.”