Winning the Arson/Fraud Case – Part II

In an earlier post, we examined some key points to structuring and winning a civil arson/fraud trial against an insured suspected of misconduct in the making of an insurance claim.  We resume our examination in Part II of Winning the Arson/Fraud Case.

Your Claims Adjuster and Claims Witnesses Must Be Demonstrably More Credible Than The Insured(s)

This is a vital assessment which must made in an objective, detached manor.  Hoping that your claims staff will appear more credible than the insured is not sufficient grounds to proceed to try the arson/fraud case.  A reasoned, detached analysis of the insurer witnesses must be done to determine whether they, individually and as a whole, will stand up to the scrutiny of the jury, and be judged more credible.

Beware of the landmines here. How can claims staff be cross-examined?  Are there any troubling issues in their employment histories?  Do they appear to be partial or biased based on the documentation in the claims file and the claims logs?  Are any of them disgruntled in some way or worse, disgruntled in some way and not forthcoming about it.

Next to the law enforcement witnesses, the claims witnesses are the most important pieces in winning the arson/fraud trial.  They deserve detailed vetting as soon as possible in the process.

Who Let The Dogs Out?

This is going to sound silly.  But this indicator has almost never in 25 years of practicing law led me astray from assessing the proper cases to take to trial.

Did the insured have any pets?  Are they normally kept inside?  Did they perish in the fire, or was there some unusual event or explanation which led them to being out of the house at the time of the fire?

Arsonists love their dogs like anybody else.  The average one-off arsonist is simply neither aware enough nor disciplined enough to sacrifice a family pet  to create the impression of a fire of actual unknown origin.   Electrical malfunctions and other accidental fires do not take time to lead otherwise confined pets to safety before they begin.  Almost all arsonists do, however.  The notable exception to this guideline is the rage or anger fire in which the arsonist attempts to harm a pet of the object of his anger — which is a very, very small percentage of intentionally set fires, in my experience.

Look For Mistakes

Some arsonists are more skilled than others. Few are hired professionals, and the amateurs make plenty of mistakes.  Combining the stress of the circumstances which would lead an insured to commit arson for insurance benefits,  and a basic lack of experience in such activity generally leads to a break or two in the fire investigation —  telltale signs of intentionally set fire versus fire of accidental cause and origin.

The following mistakes have all occurred in cases I have handled, including one case in which all of the mistakes occurred in the same fire.  Some of these are sure to strike you as fantastical but they all are true:

  • multiple points of origin which did not communicate with each other;
  • failure to ventilate the fire by opening doors and/or windows;
  • leaving incriminating documents such as  a mortgage foreclosure notice dated within 10 days of the fire  in the area of origin;
  • failing to dispose of lighters/ignition sources in the areas or origin;
  • failing  to plug in electrical appliances which were later offered by the insured as probable sources of an accidental fire
  • writing an apology to a spouse in soot on a window following the fire (this one is not so much as a mistake as it is a confession of the subconscious, I imagine)
  • using a cell phone to call a business associate about the fire twenty minutes before calling 911 Emergency Services to report the fire.

The case in which all of these mistakes occurred in the same fire  was readily identified as an arson/fraud case which should be tried.   And while that particular case is an outlier to put it mildly, most arson fires do not go perfectly for the arsonist, and mistakes can be identified.  They should be pointed out and shown to the jury.

Do Not Forget Damages

In the bustle and effort spent establishing the insured’s liability for arson/fraud, the fact that many statutes provide a right of reimbursement and recovery to the insure is lost, and insurers as a result do not take sufficient advantage of recouping expenses and costs related to investigating the fire, and recouping claims dollars which may have been paid out during the pendency of the claim.

In many ways, an insurer used to being a defendant must become a plaintiff fur purposes of not only putting on an arson/fraud case, but also for putting on a damages case as well.  Costs and claims dollars must be tracked, organized, and presented in the form of cogent damages exhibits and/or summary exhibits, preferably using the same trial presentation software as discussed in the first half of this post.  SIU and other special investigators employed by the insurers, and claims staff can authenticate these items for admission into evidence.

Some states provide for recovery of multiples of such costs, and attorneys fees in the form of penalties.  For that reason, they should not be overlooked if the decision to try the arson fraud case has been made.

Arson/Fraud Cases Can Be Won

While it does require thought and effort, the right arson/fraud cases can be won by insurers who take the time to identify good candidates, and work those candidates up properly for trial.  The prosecution of civil arson/fraud claims can also be a source for the insurer to recoup costs and claims dollars thought to have been lost in the investigation and payment of fraudulent claims.

C.J. Haddick

 

 

NJ: National Union Avoids Claim Due To Late Notice; Need Not Show Prejudice

NEW JERSEY,  Feb. 11 – The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh need not demonstrate prejudice  to avoid liability to provide defense and indemnity to an insured who reported the underlying claim six months late,  in violation of the policy’s notice requirements.  In Templo Fuente De Vida Corp. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, the Court ruled that the insurer did not have to defend or indemnify its insured, First Independent Financial Group, in a lender liability suit brought by putative borrowers.

The policy provided that First Independent provide notice of any claim made against it  during the policy period, or within 30 days following the end of the policy period, provided the notice was no later than 30 days following the insured’s initial notice of the claim.    First Independent did not report the claim at issue  until six months after it was sued, had hired its own counsel, and answered the complaint.  National Union denied coverage  on grounds of late notice, and First Independent settled the underlying claims in part, assigning to the plaintiffs its coverage claims against National Union.

The assignee plaintiffs filed a declaratory judgment action, and National Union was granted summary judgment based on the late notice defense.  An intermediate appeals court affirmed the ruling in favor of National Union.

In affirming the ruling in favor of National Union, the Court undertook an analysis of the differences between claims made policies and occurrence policies, and wrote:

Claims made policies commonly require that the claim be made and reported within the policy period, thereby providing a fixed date after which the insurance company will not be subject to liability under the policy. … Claims made policies also tend to have an additional notice of claim provision phrased in terms of the insured notifying the insurer of a claim or potential claim promptly or the like[.] 13 Couch on Insurance 3d 186:13 (2009).

The prompt notice requirement and the requirement that the claim be made within the policy period in claims made policies maximiz[e] the insurer s opportunity to investigate, set reserves, and control or participate in negotiations with the third party asserting the claim against the insured and mark the point at which liability for the claim passes to an ensuing policy,

The Court also held that in the claims made context, prejudice was not an element of establishing the late notice defense:

[W]hen First Independent began defending against plaintiffs claims without first notifying National Union, an action explicitly barred by the terms of the policy, it violated a condition precedent of timely notice to National Union, and thus breached the policy’s express condition of notice of a claim in order for coverage to attach. We decline plaintiffs invitation to read the insurance policy at issue as a contract of adhesion, or engage in a strained construction to support the imposition of liability or write a better policy for the insured than the one purchased…

 Accordingly, we hold that First Independent s failure to comply with the notice provisions of the bargained for Directors and Officers policy constituted a breach of the policy, and National Union may decline coverage without demonstrating appreciable prejudice. We recognize that a different conclusion may have been reached in other jurisdictions, but our jurisprudence has never afforded a sophisticated insured the right to deviate from the clear terms of a claims made policy.

The Court unanimously upheld judgment as a matter of law in favor of National Union.

Templo Fuente De Vida Corp. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pgh., (N.J. 2016)

Breach of Contract, Bad Faith Cases Dismissed In Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH, Feb. 5 – Chief District Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly has dismissed breach of contract and bad faith claims against State Farm by an insured contractor, finding that the underlying allegations of damage caused by the contractor fell outside of policy period.

Reginella Construction was insured under a contractor’s liability policy with State Farm between July 2004 and May 2006.  In 2013, a homeowner filed suit against Reginella complaining of problems with the floor, caused by poor materials and workmanship.  The homeowner subsequently won the underlying case against Reginella.  State Farm denied defense and indemnity to Reginella in February 2014, claiming that the occurrence per the suit against Reginella fell outside of the policy period(s).

After Reginella sued State Farm in Allegheny County, Pa. in 2015, State Farm removed the case to federal court and filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6).

“Although the cause of the damages to the Eck home was arguably within the coverage period, ‘the cause of injury . . . has no special relevance to determining the date an insurance policy is triggered, unless specifically required by the language of the applicable policy of insurance.’ Where, as here, there is no policy language requiring the cause of injury to be identified, Pennsylvania courts apply the ‘first manifestation rule’ to occurrence policies; that is, the court looks to when injury is ‘reasonably apparent,’ i.e., when it is first manifested.”

Judge Kelly granted State Farm’s motion to dismiss, based on the first manifestation rule and the allegations of the underlying complaint against Reginella, the damage caused by Reginella’s conduct fell outside of the applicable policy period.

Because the Court found that State Farm’s coverage position was supported by a “plain reading” of the policy provisions, it dismissed bad faith claims against State Farm as well.

Reginella Construction Co., Inc. v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., (W.D. Pa. Feb 5. 2016)(Kelly, C.M.J.)

Florida: Policyholder Can Assign Benefits Without Insurer Consent

FLORIDA, Feb. 5 – An intermediate state appeals court in Florida has ruled that the policyholder can assign the right to post loss benefits to third parties without insurer consent.  In Bioscience W., Inc. v. Gulfstream Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 2016 Fla. App. LEXIS 1548 (2nd Dist. 2016), a unanimous three-judge panel held that the homeowner/insured could assign post loss benefits to Bioscience W., reversing a summary judgment entered for Gulfstream by the trial court.

In Bioscience the homeowner-insured, Gattus, engaged Bioscience, an emergency water mitigation company, to provide cleanup services after a water loss her home.  As part of Gattus’ arrangement with Bioscience she assigned all loss-related policy benefits to them as compensation.  Following the loss, and the assignment, Gattus made a claim under her property insurance policy with Gulfstream.

Gulfstream denied the claim as an uncovered loss, and Bioscience subsequently filed suit against Gulfstream for breach of the policy.  Gulfstream sought dismissal, and the  trial court granted summary judgment to Gulfstream on grounds that the policy had an anti-assignment provision, requiring Gulfstream’s consent to any policy assignment.

In reversing the trial court, the appeals court held:

“Gulfstream does not and cannot argue that the entire policy was unilaterally transferred from Ms. Gattus to Bioscience, which would have been void under the language of the policy’s anti-assignment clause. Instead, it is clear that Ms. Gattus merely assigned to Bioscience the “insurance rights, benefits, and proceeds pertaining to services provided by” the policy in consideration for Bioscience’s emergency mitigation services and authorization to directly bill and to be directly paid by Gulfstream. (Emphasis added).  Stated differently, it was a post-loss assignment of a benefit under the policy to Bioscience, namely a right to seek payment for the mitigation services it rendered under the policy, not an assignment of “this policy” issued by Gulfstream to Bioscience.”

The Court also found support for its ruling in the policy’s loss payable provisions, which contemplated that payment of policy benefits might be made to persons or entities other than the insured.  It also pointed out a long history of Florida case law which permitted post-loss assignment of policy benefits without the insured’s consent.

The case remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

Bioscience W., Inc. v. Gulfstream Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 2016 Fla. App. LEXIS 1548 (2nd Dist. 2016)

Texas Judge Rules Bad Faith Claim Inadequate To Survive Summary Judgment

SHERMAN, Feb 4 – A federal judge has ruled that a bad faith suit against State Farm Lloyds arising out of property damage claims lacked sufficient questions of material fact to avoid dismissal by summary judgment pursuant to F.R.C.P. 56.

After the case, involving breach of contract and statutory and common law bad faith claims was removed from Texas state court to federal court, the Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed common law bad faith claims, but retained statutory bad faith claims under the Texas Insurance Statute and the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

“Plaintiff has failed to cite any evidence that would create a genuine issue of fact as to whether Defendant acted unreasonably in its handling of the claims.”

Judge Amos Mazzant ruled.

He found that the Plaintiff did not produce any credible evidence that the insurer misrepresented provisions of the policy,  misrepresented the authority of the agents, or that it unreasonably delayed the investigation or the processing of the Plaintiff’s insurance claims.

The Court ruled that the Plaintiffs breach of contract claims for coverage should proceed to trial.

Broxterman v. State Farm Lloyds, (E.D. Tx. 2016)(Mazzant, J.)

Hawaii: Defending Insured In Underlying Claim Not Necessarily Bad Faith Safe Harbor

HAWAII, Feb. 4 – The Supreme Court of Hawaii has ruled that a title insurer’s defense of its insured in underlying action to quiet title does not shield that insurer from bad faith exposure, and that questions of fact regarding the reasonableness of such action, as opposed to settling the underlying claim which appeared to be meritorious,  precluded summary judgment in favor of the title insurer.

In Anastasi v. Fidelity National Title Ins. Co., the Court affirmed an intermediate appeals court ruling that a summary judgment in favor of Fidelity National should be reversed, and the case remanded to trial for exploration of whether the title insurer should have paid to settle the underlying action to quiet title against its insured, Anastasi,  earlier, as opposed to continuing to litigate.  There was evidence that a warranty deed upon which Anastasi issued a mortgage to the borrower  was falsified, and the true owners of the property would prevail in the underlying suit against Anastasi and the mortgagee.

The Court found there were questions of fact regarding the reasonableness of Fidelity National’s continuing the defense of its insured in the underlying case after learning the deed upon which Anastatia issued the mortgage was forged.  Justice Paula Nakayama wrote for the court:

“If insurance companies were held to be acting reasonably as a matter of law any time they filed or defended lawsuits under a contractual right to pursue litigation, frivolous lawsuits could be used to unfairly delay payments to insureds for years…

The opinion also contains an excellent discussion of an ongoing discovery dispute regarding whether documents prepared by Fidelity’s in house legal department during the claims investigation were protected by attorney client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine.  The Court remanded that issue to the trial court as well, directing it to make a determination whether the documents in question were prepared “because of” litigation or the threat of litigation, or whether they would have been prepared regardless.

Anastasi v. Fidelity National Title Ins. Co. (HI 2016)(Nakayama, J.)

Dickie McCamey Lawyers Obtain Rescission of $25M Product Contamination Policy For Client In Coverage Dispute

PITTSBURGH, Feb. 1 – Dickie McCamey lawyers Robert Marino and Dave Ziegler along with lawyers from Choate, Hall & Steward have successfully obtained rescission of a $25 million dollar surplus Product Contamination Insurance (PCI) policy issued by Starr Surplus Lines Inc. Co . to H.J. Heinz.  The ruling  relieves the insurer of reimbursing Heinz for expenses arising out of the furnishing of lead-contaminated baby food.

Applying New York law, U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab ruled earlier this week that the omission of multiple significant prior contamination claims from Heinz’ loss histories in the application for coverage was material, thereby entitling Starr to rescission of the policies.  Schwab found testimony from Starr’s underwriters and executives that the unreported losses were material to insuring Heinz’ risk credible.

The Court, with the consent of counsel, empaneled an advisory jury to assist with fact finding, and while it agreed with most of the jury’s findings,  it departed and disagreed with that portion of the advisory jury verdict which found that Heinz had adequately proved Starr had waived the right to assert Heinz’ material misrepresentations as to prior losses.  Schwab wrote:

While Starr was not “perfect” in its assessment and underwriting practices, perfection is not the standard.  Instead, this Court finds that Starr acted more than reasonably under the circumstances.  Specifically, the Court finds that Starr’s expert was credible, and that Starr’s underwriters lacked sufficient knowledge of Heinz’ misrepresentations or omissions.

The Court rejected Heinz’ claims that Starr engaged in post-claim underwriting, and that Starr should have conducted further investigation during the underwriting process about prior losses, including delving into information about Heinz’ prior losses from sources other than the application, including applications for other coverages, and prior news coverage of Heinz contamination claims.

While Schwab conceded the equitable remedy of rescission ab initio was an extreme one, he ruled that Starr met its burden of proving entitlement to the equitable remedy.  Dickie McCamey’s attorneys worked as co-counsel in the case with Attorneys Bob Frank, John Nadas, Matt Arnould and others at Choate Hall & Stewart in the representation of Starr.

H.J. Heinz Company v. Starr Surplus Lines Ins. Co., (W.D. Pa., Feb. 1, 2016)(Schwab, J.).

Editor’s Note:  Judge Schwab’s opinion makes it fairly clear that an insurer does not have a reasonable duty to either 1.) presume an applicant is omitting information; or 2. ) investigate items which do not appear on the application.

Insured’s Failure To Disclose Prior Pathogen Losses Results In Dismissal of Coverage, Bad Faith Claims

SANTA CLARA, Jan. 14 – An intermediate state appeals court in California has affirmed dismissal of coverage, negligence,  and bad faith claims by a geranium grower against excess insurer  Great American Insurance Co., finding the trial court acted properly in granting rescission ab initio of the policy because the insured omitted material facts from a loss history on the policy application.

The court ruled that the grower omitted from the policy application’s loss runs and loss histories prior pathogenic outbreak issues experienced by the grower, and that such failure to disclose was material to Great American’s agreement to issue a policy insuring against such losses.   The appeals panel further held that under California law, including the statutory scheme for rescission of insurance policies,  the trial court acted properly within its “broad equitable discretion to fashion appropriate remedies so as to establish equity between the parties.”

The Court also found that the grower “substantially contributed” to the delay in the investigation of the contaminant outbreak claims, dismissing all contract, bad faith, and negligent claims and affirming judgment in favor of the insurer.

Goldsmith Seeds v. Great Am. Ins. Co., (Jan. 14, 2016, Cal. Sixth App. Dist)

-UPDATE- Reconsideration Denied; Summary Judgment for Harleysville Upheld In Bad Faith Case

READING, Feb. 2 – The Berks County Court of Common Pleas has denied Plaintiff’s Motion for Reconsideration on the same day the motion was filed regarding the case discussed in this prior post.

***************************************************************

Reading, Pa., Jan. 19Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote attorneys C.J. Haddick and Christine Line have won a dismissal in a bad faith case in favor of client Harleysville Insurance Companies.  The Berks County, Pa.  Court of Common Pleas on January 19 granted the motion for summary judgment filed by Haddick and Line in a bad faith suit arising out of a commercial property coverage dispute over an alleged van theft and fire involving business personal property.  Haddick and Line are members of the firm’s Insurance Law and Litigation Group.

Harleysville did not dispute it owed coverage for the value of the van, substitute van rental expense, and for the value of certain business personal property under an inland marine policy.  It did contest, however, the Plaintiff’s claimed entitlement to a variety of other sums for towing, vehicle storage, loss of business income, and claims for tool losses in excess of the policy limit.  The Court agreed that the additional claims were unsupported by the policy language.

The Court also agreed with Harleysville’s position that regardless of the outcome of the several coverage claims, the claims decisions made were made with reasonable legal and factual bases.  As a result, the Plaintiff’s bad faith claims were dismissed as well.

For additional details on  the ruling, or suggestions  how to have your coverage and bad faith claims decided faster and more favorably with greater cost control, contact us at chaddick@dmclaw.com or 717-731-4800

Rogers Flooring Co. v. Harleysville Ins. Co., Berks County No. 14-674 (Sprecher, J.)

Bad Faith Case Based On Hailstorm Claim Dismissed in Lousiana

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 28 – A Federal Judge in New Orleans has dismissed a statutory bad faith suit against an insurer arising out of a hailstorm property damage claim, finding that the insured failed to establish any genuine issue that the insurer acted arbitrarily or capriciously in the handling of the claim.  In Dubois v. Southern Fidelity Ins. Co., Judge Ivan Lemelle granted Southern Fidelity’s motion for partial summary judgment, dismissing the insured’s claim for statutory penalties.

In granting the motion, Judge Lemelle, found the insurer’s failure to pay the hailstorm property damage claim arose out of a genuine dispute about the cause, nature, and extent of the property damage.  The Court went on to note that the insured’s initial claims were both filed after some delay, and were initially unclear, making reference to both damage caused by the hailstorm, but also Hurricane Isaac.  This,  and the plaintiff’s failure to properly identify any facts tending to prove bad faith on the part of the insurer, warranted dismissal of such claims under F.R.C.P. 56, the Court held.

Dubois v. Southern Fidelity Ins. Co., E.D. La. 2016 (Lemelle, J.)

Editor’s Note:  This opinion contains a concise review of Louisiana law regarding insurer bad faith, including review of the applicable statutes, and the bad faith standard of arbitrariness and capriciousness.  The ruling also demonstrates that while the precise language of the bad faith standard may differ from state to state, in large measure they all articulate the same standard, i.e., the lack of a reasonable basis on the part of the insured in handling the claim.

 

%d bloggers like this: