Insurance Law Developments

Are Federal Courts Increasingly Likely to Grant Rescission of Insurance Contracts?Recent court decisions across a variety of industries highlight the importance of submitting complete and accurate insurance applications and renewals. When submitting an application for insurance, the applicant should accurately and completely answer all application questions and fulfill all document and data requests. Oversights, misstatements, and missing documents can lead to rescission of the insurance policy and leave the organization or individual without any coverage for a claim.

When faced with a claim or potential claim, insurance companies can and will review both the applicable policy, policy applications, and the underwriting files to determine potential defenses to coverage. After a claim arises, an insurer that discovers a discrepancy in the application, renewal, or underwriting file will likely attempt to rescind the policy and deny coverage for the claim, potentially unraveling the organization’s risk management planning and creating substantial, unexpected liabilities.

Under the wrong circumstances, insurance company rescission arguments can persuade a judge or jury because the insurance company may create the impression that the organization misled or misrepresented key details to obtain lower premiums. The insurer’s ability to frame a coverage dispute as a referendum on the policyholder’s honesty, rather than a simple contract dispute, can profoundly impact the course of the litigation. Some courts’ apparent willingness to more liberally permit rescission presents a worrying trend that should be closely monitored, coupled with a thorough review of policy applications to mitigate the potential of rescission.

Five Best Practices to Minimize Rescission Risk

  • Carefully review the reported values and conditions of assets in other company documents, especially publicly reported documents (because these documents are often incorporated by definition into the application), and ensure that the values and conditions reported on insurance applications are consistent and accurate.
  • Assess and review the scope of the organization’s operations during policy renewal to disclose all relevant business activities and avoid inadvertent omission of related business operations and new business operations to avoid an insurer contention that the organization misrepresented the scope of its operations in its renewal application.
  • Disclose prior related incidents or losses to ensure that an insurer cannot use an earlier claim or loss to rescind the policy.
  • Do not rely on good intentions as a defense to rescission. Under some state laws, courts may uphold rescission based on the insured’s material misrepresentation even if the alleged misrepresentation was accidental and not intentional.
  • Be aware of differing legal standards for disclosure of material information in insurance applications. An applicant should always answer questions fully and accurately and provide all requested supporting documents. In certain circumstances, however, such as the marine market and some foreign markets, the applicant may have an affirmative duty to disclose all material information, regardless of whether the underwriter requested the information. An insured must know whether a heightened duty to disclose applies under the governing law.

Recent Cases Underscore the Need for Accurate Applications and Disclosures

Failure to Report Prior Losses Leads to Rescission of Policy 

Just this month, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision rescinding a product contamination insurance policy based on four material misrepresentations in the policyholder’s application upon which the insurer relied.  In H.J. Heinz Co. v. Starr Surplus Lines Insurance Co., following an advisory jury’s determination that the policyholder failed to disclose at least two prior incidents involving contamination of baby food, the federal judge upheld rescission even though the insurance company purportedly ratified the policy by invoking the policy’s choice‑of‑law provision. On appeal, the policyholder argued that the insurance company’s attempt to enforce the choice‑of‑law provision in the policy ratified the policy and precludes rescission. The policyholder also argued that the insurance company knew of the prior product contamination issues through news reports in the insurance company’s file. The appellate court rejected both of these arguments and in strong language criticized the insured for failure to disclose prior losses: “For the ten-year period identified in the Application, Heinz disclosed only one loss in excess of a $5 million SIR. In reality, however, Heinz experienced three losses exceeding a $5 million SIR, totaling more than $20 million, a figure far exceeding the single $5.8 million disclosed loss. Heinz’s misrepresentations were of such magnitude that they deprived Starr of ‘its freedom of choice in determining whether to accept or reject the risk upon full disclosure of all the facts which might reasonably affect that choice.” The appellate court also found that the evidence established the insurer’s reliance on these misrepresentations: “Starr underwriters testified that they looked to Heinz’s loss history in calculating the appropriate risk and conducting their loss ratio analysis.”

This appeal presents an interesting test case: The policyholder’s position that rescission is inappropriate because the insurance company ratified the contract is legally sound, but the insurance company’s argument that the omission of two potentially related prior incidents from the application highlights the risks of incomplete disclosures in insurance applications. The Third Circuit held oral argument on December 6, 2016, and took the matter under advisement.

Failure to Disclose Additional Business Activities Leads to Rescission of Policy

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the rescission of an insurance policy sold to a doctor and a related MRI center because both made material misrepresentations in their insurance policy applications. In Essex Insurance Co. v. Galilee Medical Center S.C., the court, applying Illinois law, upheld rescission because the applications stated that the doctor and the MRI center did not perform non‑traditional weight loss procedures or treatments, but a post-claim investigation indicated otherwise.

After a patient sued the doctor and the MRI center for complications from a non-FDA approved weight loss treatment, the court found that the doctor recommended non‑traditional weight loss procedures and treatments to a client while at the MRI center and then completed those treatments at a different location. The court rejected the MRI center’s argument that the doctor performed the non-traditional weight loss procedure at another location and that the doctor’s actions at the MRI center were limited to making a referral to himself for the non‑traditional weight loss procedure.

Incorrect Reporting of Property Condition Leads to Rescission of Policy

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision to rescind two insurance policies for misrepresentations regarding the condition of a dry dock that sank after the policyholder attempted to repair the structure. In Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. v. Great American Insurance Co., two insurance companies, an excess property insurer and a marine pollution insurer, sought rescission of their respective insurance contracts because the policyholder’s insurance application and renewals valued a dry dock owned and operated by the policyholder at several million dollars, when internal documents show that, due to deterioration and lack of repairs by a prior owner, the dry dock had no monetary value.

Applying admiralty law, which requires a heightened duty of “utmost good faith” of disclosure on the part of the applicant, the court rescinded the marine policy because the policyholder, over a period of multiple years, reported that the value of the dry dock as if it were in good condition when it was in need of repairs. The court upheld rescission despite the policyholder’s argument that it provided all the information requested on the insurance application and the underwriter did not request surveys or additional information about the condition of the dry dock. This holding highlights the need to ascertain when a heightened duty to disclose applies for certain types of policies.

Similarly, applying Mississippi law, the court upheld rescission of the excess property policy because the applicant reported the value of the dry dock as if it were in good condition and reported the likelihood of a maximum probable loss – the dry dock sinking – as an “extremely low probability.” The court rejected the applicant’s arguments that it did not complete an application, but rather provided a property insurance submission of its own creation, and that the insurer did not request additional information about the condition of the dry dock in light of the “material misrepresentation” of the condition of the dry dock in the insurance submission. The court rescinded the policy even though the insurer did not intend to deceive the insurer. The court did not require intent or a reckless disregard of the facts often required for a misrepresentation defense.

More States Applying “No-Prejudice Rule” on Notice to Claims-Made PoliciesIn a majority of states, an insurer cannot deny coverage based on a policyholder’s late notice of a claim without showing that the delay prejudiced the insurer. This “notice-prejudice rule” is an advance over the traditional “no-prejudice” rule that allows insurers to deny claims based on late notice regardless of the circumstances leading to the delay. The Wyoming Supreme Court, the most recent court to adopt the notice-prejudice rule, described the rationale for the rule in Century Surety Company v. Jim Hipner, LLC: most policyholders lack the leverage to negotiate for better policy terms; forfeiture of coverage on a mere technicality gives an unwarranted windfall to the insurer; and states have an interest in ensuring that accident victims are compensated. The court also held that a policy provision attempting to “contract around” the notice-prejudice rule violated public policy.

Nevertheless, more states are limiting the notice-prejudice rule to occurrence policies and applying the no-prejudice rule to claims-made policies. The New Jersey Supreme Court  applied the no-prejudice rule to a claims-made policy that required written notice of a claim “as soon as practicable” in Templo Fuente De Vida Corp. v. National Union Fire Insurance Co.  The court agreed with National Union’s contention that the policyholder’s notice of a D&O claim more than six months after service of the lawsuit violated the notice provision. Despite longstanding precedent in New Jersey following the notice-prejudice rule, the New Jersey Supreme Court refused to apply the notice-prejudice rule to claims-made policies with clear and unambiguous terms. The court discounted the equitable concerns behind the notice-prejudice rule because purchasers of claims-made policies are “knowledgeable insureds, purchasing their insurance requirements through sophisticated brokers.”

Despite this court’s application of the no-prejudice rule to a claims-made policy, policyholders should not presume this is a blanket rule, even in New Jersey. In Templo Fuente, the policyholder gave no reason for its delay in providing notice. An explanation could have dissuaded the court from denying coverage. In addition, not all purchasers of claims-made policies are “sophisticated.” Finally, the goal of avoiding an unwarranted windfall to the insurer appears to equally apply to a claims-made policy. Unlike an occurrence policy, which can be triggered years after the policy period expires, coverage under a claims-made policy is limited. In order for coverage to apply, the policyholder must give notice of the claim within the policy period or any applicable extended period, as did the policyholder in Templo Fuente.

To avoid a forfeiture of coverage, policyholders should establish a protocol for giving notice of claims and potential claims under all potentially applicable insurance policies, including umbrella and excess policies. In Century Surety, the policyholder had notified the primary insurer but not the umbrella insurer, perhaps believing that the claim would not exceed the primary policy’s limits. The policyholder’s failure to notify the umbrella insurer did not forfeit coverage in that case, but would have under the no-prejudice rule.

Even If Insurer Has No Duty to Defend, It Could Have Duty to IndemnifyPaying attorneys’ fees and other costs of a defense against a third-party lawsuit can deal a tremendous blow to a policyholder’s bottom line. Not surprisingly, some of the hardest fought battles between policyholders and insurers center on whether insurers have a duty to defend. Because an insurer’s duty to defend is broader than its duty to indemnify, when a lower court rules that a particular insurer has no duty to defend, many policyholders walk away from their policies and look for other sources of recovery. A recent case demonstrates that policyholders should not let their insurers off the hook so easily.

In Hartford Casualty Insurance Company v. DP Engineering, L.L.C., the appeals court held that insurers might have a duty to indemnify even though they had no duty to defend. Entergy hired the policyholder engineering company to assist in removing and refurbishing a 520-ton component at a nuclear power plant. The gantry used to lift the component collapsed, killing one worker, injuring others, and causing “massive damage” to the plant. The insurers contended that they had no duty to defend or indemnify the policyholder in the multiple lawsuits that arose from the incident, based on the professional services exclusions in the policies. The district court agreed with the insurers.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with this line of reasoning. Even though the insurers had no duty to defend because the actions alleged in the complaints fell within the professional services exclusions, the court said, the insurer could still have a duty to indemnify. The insurers’ duty to indemnify could only be determined after a final adjudication of the lawsuits because the allegations did not “conclusively foreclose” the development of facts involving the insured’s non-professional services, which would trigger coverage under the policies.

This case is a reminder not to walk away from coverage in the face of a loss on the duty to defend. Policyholders pay premiums to secure both the duty to defend and the duty to indemnify, and should fight for both coverages to avoid responsibility for a settlement or judgment that could be as damaging to the bottom line as the costs of defense.