A federal court in Michigan just breathed new life into a long-running legal saga—while at the same time issuing a warning shot across the bows of insurers—by declining to dismiss an insured’s bad faith cause of action alleging its insurer wrongly decided to pay one claim before another, to the insured’s detriment.
The Flint, Mich., water crisis returned to the news recently as criminal charges were brought against additional government employees resulting from the crisis. Meanwhile, a federal court in Pennsylvania recently issued a ruling in an insurance case that, like Flint, related to alleged contamination in drinking water stemming from corroded pipes. The decision rejects two insurers’ attempts to avoid coverage and serves as a good reminder of some fundamental insurance law principles—the duty to defend is broad, ambiguous policy language usually is construed against the insurer, and policies should be interpreted in favor of their purpose to provide coverage. It is also a reminder that the pollution exclusion is not nearly as all-encompassing as insurers like to think it is.
The first thing your insurance company must do after receiving notice of a loss is investigate your claim and make a coverage determination. The insurer will evaluate the strength of your claim, whether to pay it and what amount to pay. Even if the insurer thinks your claim is potentially covered, it may take the position that your claim is not covered or slow down its claim adjustment process to delay a payout in an effort to leverage a settlement for less than full value. If you sue to challenge your insurer’s coverage denial, a critical step to protect your rights and get the full coverage owed is to gain discovery of the insurer’s internal claims documents.
New York is a tricky forum for policyholders pursuing insurance coverage claims. In particular, New York jurisprudence has long failed to recognize and address causes of action for bad faith. Historically, insureds seeking to impose extracontractual liability have been required to meet the high bar of showing “egregious tortious conduct” and “a pattern of similar conduct directed at the public generally.” Contract-based claims invoking good faith and fair dealing often fared no better, with courts routinely dismissing insureds’ bad faith claims because they viewed them as “duplicative” of the policyholders’ underlying claims for breach of the insurance contract.
In 2008, a glimmer of hope emerged from New York’s highest court. In Bi-Economy Market, Inc. v. Harleysville Insurance Co., the court recognized a policyholder’s right to recover consequential damages in excess of policy limits where (1) the damages were the direct result of improper claims handling, and (2) the damages were foreseeable by the parties at the time of contracting. Although this decision did not create a bad faith cause of action, it did provide policyholders with a potential avenue to recoup consequential damages where the insurer violated its implicit contract-based covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
Florida is a hotbed for insurance claims, from run-of-the mill auto accidents to pervasive construction defects to post-hurricane business interruptions, and everything in between. Insurance companies are likely to deny many of those claims—whether or not that denial is proper—hoping that their policyholders will be unwilling to spend the time and money required to demonstrate coverage. But with its new decision in Johnson v. Omega Insurance Company, the Florida Supreme Court reminds policyholders that they have a powerful tool against improper denials of coverage—the awarding of attorney’s fees. Continue reading →