Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Disagreement between First Circuit and Superior Court on whether terms of insurance policy control coverage

Welch Foods was sued by a competitor and by consumers for placing a label on a three juice blend bottle that pictured mainly pomegranates, even though the juice blend consisted primarily of apple and grape juice. A jury in California found that the label had a tendency to deceive a substantial number of customers. (Really? You really think that a three juice blend will consist primarily of pomegranate juice?)

Welch requested insurance coverage from National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh, PA. National Union denied the claim on the basis of an exclusion labeled "Antitrust Exclusion," which, in addition to excluding antitrust claims, also excluded coverage for unfair competition and deceptive trade practices.

In Welch Foods, Inc. v. Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, __ F.3d __, 2011WL 5027445 (1st Cir.), the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that although the exclusions for unfair competition and deceptive trade practices were listed under the antitrust exclusion, the claims were effectively excluded. The court noted that the policy provided, "the description in the headings of this policy are solely for convenience, and form no part of the terms and conditions of coverage."

The court quoted the familiar language, "an insurance contract is to be interpreted according to the fair and reasonable meaning of the words in which the agreement of the parties is expressed. . . . Every word in an insurance contract must be presumed to have been employed with a purpose and must be given meaning and effect whenever practical."

By contrast, this week's Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly has a cover story on a Superior Court decision drafted by Judge Cornetta, Caron v. Horace Mann Ins. Co., which apparently held that an insurance company is bound by a mutual mistake between an insured and an agent over the terms of the policy, even if -- quoting Eric Parker, who represented the plaintiffs -- "some 50- or 75- page boilerplate policy they've been printing for years says [that different terms apply]. It's going to be changed to reflect the understanding of the parties."

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