Friday, December 25, 2009

U.S. District Court holds that language of policy endorsement trumps reason endorsement was written

In my last post I started discussing Whittaker Corp. v. Am. Nuclear Insurers, __ F.2d __, 2009 WL 4342512 (D. Mass.).

Whittaker and Textron were former owners and operators of property that was declared a superfund site because of nuclear waste. They sought coverage for associated costs from American Nuclear Insurers, or ANI. At issue was an endorsement called a Facility Form in which ANI promised to pay "all sums which the insured shall become legally obligated to pay as damages because of . . . property damage arsing from the nuclear energy hazard."

ANI argued that there was no coverage for the loss. It argued that the Facility Form must be viewed in the context in which it was drafted. It contended that the Facility Form is a "creature of statute," intended to carry out the legislative goals of the Price Anderson Act, which was conceived in response to "the risk of potentially vast liability in the event of a nuclear accident of sizable magnitude." The Act required nuclear power licensees to purchase primary insurance of $60 million. The government agreed to act as an excess insurer, providing licensees with $500 million of indemnity over the primary policy. Licensees were relieved of any additional liability regardless of fault or causation.

ANI claimed that it developed the Facility Form to meet the primary policy requirement of the Price Anderson Act. It argued that if the Facility Form is interpreted to provide coverage for the "conventional" environmental cleanup, its ability to provide coverage for third-party claims in the event of nuclear catastrophe would be severely and possible fatally jeopardized.

The court rejected that argument. It noted that the Price Anderson Act is not a "nanny" act, in that it does not prohibit insurers from undertaking to provide coverage to nuclear plant operators for "conventional" environmental harm should they choose to do so. It did not dictate the terms of the Facility Form.

The court held that coverage under the Facility Form is determined by its terms, and that pursuant to those terms coverage was initially triggered.

As I will discuss in my next post, however, there was no coverage because the loss came within an exclusion.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

United States District Court holds that uncertainty over insurance policy terms does not create duty to defend

My next several posts will discuss Whittaker Corp. v. Am. Nuclear Insurers, __ F.2d __ (D. Mass. 2009), 2009 WL 4342512, in which historical owners of property sought insurance coverage for their costs associated with the property being declared a superfund site.

One of the issues was whether Endorsement 112, which would have excluded coverage, was properly added to the insurance policy. In a previous decision the court had held that pending the resolution of that factual question, the insurer, ANI, had a duty to defend. On a motion to reconsider, to his credit Judge Stearns reversed that ruling:

This ruling put the cart before the horse by conflating the duty to defend with the existence of coverage in the first place. Before a court can determine whether a policy imparts a duty to defend, an applicable policy must be identified.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Superior Court allows adjustment of premiums over insured's argument of mistake

In Nat'l Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. AT Equipment, Inc., 2009 WL 3086233 (Mass. Super.), AT was insured by National. AT's insurance broker filled out and delivered to AT an insurance application when it was time to renew the policy. The broker had filled in gross sales figures from previous years despite a recent substantial increase in gross sales. AT's managers did not read the entire application, but signed it on behalf of AT.

National issued a new policy which gave National the right to audit AT's records and charge additional premiums if the audit determined that such payments were appropriate. An audit revealed that an additional $102,405 was due in premiums. It sued AT for those premiums and moved for summary judgment.

The Superior Court rejected AT's argument that the policy should be reformed (apparently by removing the clause allowing adjustment of premiums) or voided on the grounds of fraud or mistake. It rejected the fraud argument because no facts indicated actual or constructive knowledge of the falsity of the application on the part of National.

It held that the policy could not be reformed on the grounds of mutual mistake because the parties were not mistaken as to the same matters. AT was mistaken about the accuracy of the contents of its application, and National was mistaken about the appropriate premium.

The court held, finally, that the contract could not be reformed on the grounds of unilateral mistake because National had the right to conduct an audit and correct the premium. Therefore AT, the party seeking to void the contract, bore the risk of the mistake.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

First Circuit holds that D and O policy does not provide coverage where directors and officers are not defendants

In Medical Mut. Ins. Co. v. Indian Harbor Ins. Co., 583 F.3d 57 (1st Cir. 2009) the United States Court of Appeals held that under Maine law a Director and Officer ("D & O") liability policy did not provide coverage where only a company, and not its officers and directors, was the defendant--even though the allegations included wrongful conduct on the part of the officers and directors.

Judge Selya held:

D & 0 polices exist to fund indemnification covenants that protect corporate directors and officers from personal liability, not to protect the corporation by which they are employed. The position advanced by the company in this case - extending coverage to situations in which the directors and officers are not themselves the actual targets of the claims made - would if accepted transmogrify D & 0 policies into comprehensive corporate general liability policies. Because such a tansmogrification is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the D & O policy at issue here, we affirm the district court's entry of summary judgment in favor of the insurer.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Massachusetts Appellate Division overturns summary judgment to PIP insurer for failure to show decision-making process

In N.E. Physical Therapy Plus, Inc. v. Commerce Ins. Co., 2009 WL 3381750 (Mass. App. Div.), physical therapist NEPT sued Commerce pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 90 § 34M (the PIP statute) and ch. 93A § 11 (the consumer protection statute) for failing to pay physical therapy bills on behalf of Commerce's insured, who was entitled to PIP benefits.

After suit was filed Commerce paid the disputed bill, which extinguished the ch. 90 § 34 M claim. Commerce then moved for summary judgement on the 93A claim. In support of its motion Commerce submitted only an affidavit of a Commerce employee.

The court denied Commerce's motion for summary judgment, holding:

The Affidavit is composed almost entirely of the affiant's facile and conclusory characterizations of Commerce's claims records. Even if the Affidavit were admissible in its entirety, a question we do not reach here, Commerce's summary judgment materials provide no insight into Commerce's strategy for handling NEPT's claims; into the particulars of Commerce's decision-making process with respect to those claims; into the results of any expert review of the claims; or, in fact, into any of the subjective questions on which G.L. c. 93A claims generally rise and fall.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Judge Fremont-Smith of the Superior Court holds that damages both did and may not have arisen out of use of a vehicle

In Leone v. Schwartz, 2009 WL 3416398, the plaintiff, Leone, was a police officer who responded to an accident in which Schwartz's car had crashed through a fence and some small trees. Leone alleged that as he approached the car on foot, he lost his balance and fell in an area that was covered with debris from the fence, broken tree limbs, and snow and ice.

Leone sued Schwartz's homeowner's insurer, Great Northern, and automobile insurer, Arbella. Judge Fremont-Smith held on summary judgment that there was no coverage under the homeowner's policy because the policy excludes "damages arising out of the . . . use . . . of any motorized land vehicle." He wrote:

The allegations are that Schwartz negligently drove his motor vehicle off a road and into a lawn, causing the plaintiff to investigate the accident scene and suffer a "slip and fall" injury. The only theory on which Schwartz could be held liable, then, is as a result of his allegedly negligent operation of a motor vehicle, for which the policy excludes coverage.

Judge Fremont-Smith then turned to the automobile policy, which provided coverage for "damage to people injured or killed in accidents if you or a household member is legally responsible for the accident." "Accident" is defined in the policy as "an unexpected, unintended event that caused bodily injury or property damages arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of an auto."

Although two paragraphs earlier Judge Fremont Smith had held that as a matter of law the accident arose out of the use of the car, he now wrote:

The fact that Schwartz's operation of a motor vehicle provides the only possible basis for his liability, so that Great Northern's motion must be allowed, does not necessarily mean that Arbella's motor vehicle policy provides coverage. It is true that, but for Scwartz's vehicle having gone off the road and onto a lawn, Leone would not even have been there. But this does not necessarily mean that Leone's injury arose out of Schwartz's operation of a vehicle. The vehicle was stationary when Leone arrived at the scene, and he has admitted that the yard in which he fell was covered by debris, snow, and ice. Even if the undisputed facts were to indicate that Schwartz was negligent in his operation of his vehicle, it is a disputed question of fact whether Leone's injuries arose out of Schwartz's use of his motor vehicle.

Judge Fremont-Smith concluded that if Leone fell on pieces of broken fence or other debris caused by the accident there would be coverage under the policy, but that if he slipped only on snow and ice or other debris that was not caused by the accident there would be no coverage.

I'm all for splitting hairs in interpreting insurance policies. I make my living doing it. But I do not see how the same opinion can hold as a matter of law that the damages arose out of the use of a vehicle and also hold that whether the injury arose out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the auto is a question of fact. In my opinion the judge can't have it both ways.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Appellate Division holds that insurer does not need to show prejudice from violation of duty to cooperate

In Trinidad v. Pilgrim Insurance Company, 2009 WL 3844469 (Mass. App. Div.), the insured sought PIP coverage. He skipped two medical examinations scheduled by the insurer. The insurer denied coverage on the grounds that the insured failed to cooperate.

The insured argued that the insurer failed to prove that it had been prejudiced by his failure to cooperate. The Massachusetts Appellate Division held that a showing of prejudice is not required. It noted that both the PIP statue and the policy required the insured to submit to medical exams by physicians selected by the insurer. The court held:

Neither the policy, nor the statute, requires an insurer to show prejudice before invoking the defense of noncooperation by the claimant as a condition precedent to denying a claim.