Monday, December 15, 2014

Payroll expenses are not part of gross revenue; why policies are impossible to understand

Gene Killian at New Jersey Insurance Coverage Litigation has blogged about a Massachusetts Appeals Court case, Verrill Farms LLC v. Family Farm Cas. Ins. Co., 86 Mass. App. Ct. 577 (2014).  The case addressed business interruption coverage and held that payroll expenses should be deducted from gross revenue in the calculation of profit or loss to determine loss of business income. 

Killian wonders why insurance policies are so badly written.  I disagree with both of his hypotheses: that the underwriters think the nature of the risks they seek to cover is complicated, or that they think that if they write the policies in an arcane and convoluted manner they'll have wiggle room when coverage disputes arise.

Policies are complicated because they are written reactively rather than proactively.  They react to court decisions that interpret them. 

Say there's an exclusion that provides, "This policy excludes damage to trees."  A court holds the exclusion does not apply to apples that have fallen from trees.  (For those of you who did not grow up near orchards, such apples are used for cider.) 

The next version of the exclusion will provide, "This policy excludes damage to trees and to the product of any tree that has not yet been harvested." A court  holds that that exclusion does not apply to damage to apples sitting in a wheelbarrow under a tree, because they have been harvested. 

The next version of the exclusion will provide, "This policy excludes damage to trees and to the product of any tree that has not yet been harvested, and to the product of any tree that has been harvested that remains on the insured property."  A court decision holds that "the product of any tree that has been harvested" applies only when the the tree itself has been harvested (such as for lumber) and not when its fruit has been harvested.

The next version of the exclusion will provide, "This policy excludes damage to trees and to any tree that has not been harvested and to any product that has not yet been harvested that grows on trees on the property and to any tree that has been harvested and remains on the property and to any product that grows on trees that has been harvested and remains on the property." 

By now no one can read through the exclusion without their eyes crossing, much less figure out what it purports to exclude.  Combine it with a few policy definitions and maybe an anti-concurrent causation clause, and . . . welcome to a modern insurance policy. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Massachusetts Appeals Court continues trend of PIP decisions against insurers

On April 7, 2007 a passenger was injured in an automobile accident.  Pilgrim was the PIP carrier.  Bryan Hartunian provided orthopedic treatments to the insured.  Pilgrim paid some of the bills from the treatment but withheld payment of $990 on the ground that the charges exceeded an amount that was reasonable in comparison to other medical providers in the same geographic area.  However, it did not notify Hartunian  within ten days of its intention not to pay. 

After twelve months of demanding payment, Hartunian sued Pilgrim in the Massachusetts District Court.  In addition to the unpaid portion of his bill he sought damages under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A.  Pilgrim then issued payment of $990 and filed a motion for summary judgment on all counts of the complaint.  The motion was denied with respect to the 93A count.  Pilgrim was found liable for breach of 93A after a bench and subsequently appealed.

In Hartunian v. Pilgrim Ins. Co.,  __ N.E.3d __, 2014 WL 6607866 (Mass. App. Ct.), Pilgrim argued that its refusal to make payment was not an unfair business practice because it disputed the obligation to pay in good faith.  The court held that that argument ignored the fact that an insurer must, by statute, make PIP payments within ten days or notify the submitting physician or claimant of its intention not to pay. 

Pilgrim also argued that it did not act in bad when  it had an independent medical exam conducted by a physical therapist (apparently a common thing now) rather than a practitioner licensed in the same medical specialty as Hartunian. While not dismissing out of hand the use in all circumstances of a physical therapist for an IME, the court held that whether such use is in good faith raises a factual issue. 

Similarly, the court held that review of the bills by a billing program is not automatically a bad faith act by an insurer but that "its use as a substitute for a practitioner's review of billing statements and underlying services provides an additional basis for an inference of Pilgrim's lack of good faith." 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Appeals Court sidesteps question of whether PIP carriers can have IME conducted by physical therapist

 Judith Ortiz was injured in an automobile accident. She sought PIP benefits from Commerce. 

Commerce sent Ortiz a notice indicating that she would have an independent medical examination conducted by a physician named Eugene Boeglin.  Ortiz attended the examination.  When Commerce sent her lawyer a copy of the IME report, she learned that Boeglin was not a medical doctor but a "doctor of physical therapy."  (Side note:  I have read hundreds of plaintiffs' physical therapy notes in my career.  Since the notes were all more or less the same I had come to assume that PT was bogus -- until I was referred to PT a few years ago for a pinched nerve.  Those people are miracle workers with knowledge that goes extremely deep.) 

Ortiz sued Mass Medical Services, apparently Boeglin's employer, for violation of the privacy statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 214 s. 1B and of ch. 93A. 

In Ortiz v. Mass Medical Services, Inc., 86 Mass. App. Ct. 1116, 2014 WL 5326511 (unpublished), the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed dismissal of the privacy act claim for failure to comply with the statute of limitations. 

The court dismissed the 93A claim because the allegedly unfair and deceptive act -- the fact that Boeglin was a physical therapist, not a medical doctor -- caused no adverse consequences or loss. 

The court did not address whether Commerce itself was in violation of any statute or acting in bad faith by having the IME conducted by a physical therapist. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

It's a whole new ballgame in PIP litigation, thanks to an SJC decision

I have written before, here, about why it is difficult to sue PIP carriers who fail to pay claims.  PIP claims are by their nature small: generally not more than $2000 and never more than $8000.  The PIP statute provides that the insurer must pay the claimant's attorney's fees if a judgment against the carrier enters.  Up until now, an insurer could avoid paying those fees if it forced a claimant to file suit, conduct discovery and go to trial and then, minutes before judgment enters, paid the claim.  Of course if the claimant proved bad faith in the insurer's actions then attorney's fees were available under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A, but bad faith is harder to prove than mere failure to pay a claim when due.  Although some wiggle room was found by various decisions of the Massachusetts Appellate Division (a court that does not set precedent), see here and here, PIP cases in general were simply a bad risk. 

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has changed all that.

In Barron Chiropractic & Rehabilitation, P.C. v. Norfolk & Dedham Group, 469 Mass. 800 (2014), the SJC has held that an unpaid party who has brought suit may refuse the insurer's tender of PIP amounts due, proceed with suit, and obtain a judgment for those amounts as well as its costs and attorney's fees. 

The plaintiff, Barron Chiropractic & Rehabilitation, provided chiropractic services to Nicole Jean-Pierre after an auto accident.  Jean-Pierre's PIP carrier was Norfolk & Dedham. 

Jean Pierre's chiropractor at Barron and Norfolk & Dedham disagreed about the length of treatment made necessary by the accident and about the proper price for her treatment.  The disputed amount was $1,544.05. 

Barron sued Norfolk & Dedham in District Court.  Norfolk & Dedham determined that its anticipated litigation costs would substantially exceed the amount of the disputed medical fees.  Six days prior to trial it sent Barron a check for the disputed amount with an attached check stub that stated "full and final settlement."  Barron's counsel returned the check to Norfolk's counsel with a letter stating that its offer of settlement was rejected.

The SJC held that under contract law Barron was not required to accept the tender of settlement for the amount due after the time for payment under the PIP statute had passed.  It also held that it would be unfair and against the purpose of the PIP statute to allow the insurer to escape costs and attorney's fees by paying the PIP amount that was due after forcing the claimant to file suit. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Insurance and global warming

The New York Times has an article about the reaction (and non-reaction) of insurers to higher risk of property damage as a result of global warming.

My guess is that the government will find itself more and more in the property insurance business. Just as it entered the flood insurance market through the National Flood Insurance Program, the government will have to make a choice about whether to abandon owners of property now at high risk for hurricanes and other disasters or to subsidize them. 

My vote would be a gradually phased-out subsidy, perhaps with an income-based component.  Just as I don't think that taxpayers should have to pay to protect the houses of people who choose to build on unstable lands prone to falling into oceans or canyons, I don't think that over the long-term taxpayers should have to pay to protect property that is highly likely to be destroyed by relatively predictable weather disasters.  But I also don't want to see those property owners suffer a unilateral loss as a result of global warming, an event we have all caused and should all bear responsibility for.  And I want to see poorer people with more protections for their limited assets.   

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Appeals Court reminds us that when it comes to insurance, it's usually Buyer Beware

In Kleycamp v. USAA Casualty Ins. Co., 86 Mass. App. Ct. 1113, 2014 WL 4799608 (unpublished), the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed summary judgment to a defendant insurer that had not recommended that the plaintiffs purchase underinsured coverage with their auto policy.

The plaintiffs had never specifically inquired of the insurer about underinsured coverage, and the insurer never made any specific assertions or representations about the adequacy of the plaintiffs' coverage. 

The court noted that the general rule in Massachusetts is that insurers and their agents do not have a general duty to recommend insurance coverage, or to guarantee that insurance policies are adequate for a particular insured's needs.  There is an exception only for special circumstances, such as reliance on specific assertions or representations concerning the adequacy of coverage. 

In a footnote the court noted that the same analysis might not apply to homeowner's policies.

In my view, underinsured and uninsured coverages are among the most important insurance you can buy.  They can't protect you against the risk that another driver's carelessness will injure you; but they do protect you against the risk that that careless driver doesn't have enough insurance to cover your injuries. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Appeals Court holds pollution exclusion in auto policy of oil delivery service applies to overfilled oil tank

United Energy Oil Company, an oil delivery service, delivered oil from a truck to an oil tank in  a building owned by National Equity Properties.  It overfilled the tank and caused oil to seep into the ground. 

The truck was covered by a business auto insurance policy issued by Hanover Insurance.  Hanover determined that damages over $5000 came within the policy's pollution exclusion. 

A declaratory judgment action over the meaning of the pollution exclusion followed.  It was undisputed in that action that heating oil is a pollutant within the meaning of the pollution exclusion.

The first policy clause at issue in Izdebski v. Hanover Ins. Group, Inc., 86 Mass App. Ct. 1102, 2014 WL 2973681 (unpublished) was one that made the pollution exclusion applicable to property damage arising out of the actual discharge, release, or escape of pollutants:
a.  That are, or that are contained in any property that is:
(1)  Being transported or towed by, handled, or handled for movement into, onto or from, the covered 'auto.'
The Massachusetts Appeals Court held that the clause excluded coverage because the spill happened as the polluting oil was being delivered by the pump from the tank to its intended destination.    The plaintiffs argued that the oil had reached its final destination before it seeped into the ground, or that the oil that seeped into the ground was already in the tank before United began to fill it.  The court held that those interpretations ignored the meaning of "arising out of" in the exclusion. 

The second policy clause at issue was an exception.  The exclusion was for  damage arising out of the actual discharge, release, or escape of pollutants once they have been finally delivered. The exception applied to accidents with respect to pollutants not in a covered auto if
(1)  The pollutants or any property in which the pollutants are contained are upset, overturned or damaged as a result of the maintenance or use of a covered auto; and
(2)  The discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of the pollutants is caused directly by such upset, overturn or damage.
The phrase "upset, overturned or damages" was not defined.  The court held that a fair reading of the exception is that it applies to an accidental oil spill only  if United's truck is upset, overturned or damaged.  That doesn't make a lot of sense to me, as the exception plainly says that it is the pollutants "or any property in which they are contained" that must be upset, overturned, or damaged.  If it was only the covered auto that could be upset, overturned or damaged, the policy would have said so.  On the other hand, it does not seem that an overflow or seepage of oil comes within the definition either.