Monday, October 5, 2015

First Circuit holds that pro rata allocation does not apply to attorney's fees in long tail loss

In a case with odd facts, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has held that under Massachusetts law, in long tail losses attorney's fees are not subject to pro rata allocation. 

I'm not going to go into great detail of the facts of the case.  Suffice it to say that the First Circuit's recitation of those facts and the procedural history fairly drip with disdain for the insurer's actions and litigation strategy.  Rather than stating a straightforward prediction that the SJC would not apply pro rata allocation to defense costs (a subject of debate among insurance coverage attorneys), it chided the insurer for removing the case to federal court where new state law cannot be made. 

The reasoning of the First Circuit that the duty to defend is a broad duty that should not be subject to pro rata allocation is sound.  But in the context of the case the court has left room for insurers to argue that bad facts make bad law and that Massachusetts state courts should ignore the decision for that reason.

A substantial oil spill occurred on property owned by the Peabody-Essex Museum, and eventually migrated off-property to land owned by Heritage Plaza.  Heritage Plaza discovered the oil in 2003 and made a claim against the Museum.  The Massachusetts of Department of Environmental Protection issued a Notice of Responsibility to the museum.

The museum sought coverage from U.S. Fire Insurance Company, its insurer from December, 1983 to December, 1985.  U.S. Fire denied a duty to defend the private demand from Heritage Plaza, but accepted defense of the DEP claim with a reservation of rights.

The museum retained legal counsel and an environmental consultant and tendered the bills to U.S. Fire.  It received no payment for the defense of the public claim even though U.S. Fire had agreed to defend that claim.  It finally sent a payment totaling $611.41, which it calculated by unilaterally reducing the hourly rate of counsel to $200 per hour and unilaterally reducing the bills to what it considered to be the percent spent on the public claim.  It made no payment for the environmental consultant,

The museum sued U.S. Fire and, in 2013, was awarded judgment of over $1.5 million in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. 

In Peabody Essex Museum,Inc. v. U.S. Fire Ins. Co., __ F.3d__, 2015 WL 5172841 (1st Cir. 2015), the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that US Fire's persistent failure to make any payment towards defense costs "despite having nominally accepted that duty may be treated as a wrongful refusal to defend upon receipt of notice of a claim." 

The court then turned to the issue of how the costs and fees should be divided between the insurer and insured. 

The court first held that the US District Court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the beginning of the 1983-1985 policy period was the start date for the allocation period even though that date "has a make believe quality." 

The District Court had applied a fact-based allocation rather than the default time on the risk method set forth in Boston Gas Co. v. Century Indem. Co., 454 Mass. 337 (2009).  In a fact based allocation, costs are attributed to a policy period based on the percentage of damage that occurred during that period.  Courts generally agree that a fact-based allocation is best, but it is often impossible to produce facts indicating how much damage occurred in one 12-month period versus another of a 30 year long undiscovered contamination.  Some courts have applied it in sexual abuse cases, where an institution allowed sexual abuse of many minors over a period of time, because in that instance it is possible to determine how many allegations of abuse occurred in one year over another.

The time on the risk method, as set forth in Boston Gas, allocates damages based on the percentage of time a particular insurer provided coverage out of the entire period of the loss.

The District Court apparently allocated loss based on a finding that 9,000 square feet of oil damage occurred during the two year policy period.  (The total square feet damaged is not clear from the opinion.)

The First Circuit affirmed the holding of the District Court that time on the risk proration of Boston Gas Co. v. Century Indem. Co., 454 Mass. 337 (2009) does not apply to defense costs.  It held that the arguments of U.S. Fire "appear diminutive next to the long-standing state precedent on the broad and formidable contractual duty to defend that heavily favors insureds and hat stands apart from indemnity obligations."    It tempered its holding by adding, "we have warned, time and again, that litigants who reject a state forum in favor of federal court under diversity jurisdiction cannot expect that new state-law trails will be blazed" by the federal court.

Thanks to Mike Tracy for bringing this case to my attention. 

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