Anticipation Over: Heinz Squeezed By Federal Court

Heinz DeniedUnderscoring the need for complete candor when answering insurance application questions, a federal court permitted an insurer to rescind an insurance policy.  See H.J. Heinz Co. v. Starr Surplus Lines Co., Case No. 15 cv0631 (W.D. PA, Feb 1, 2016). Starr sold Heinz an Accidental Contamination and Government Recall insurance policy (the “Recall Policy”). After Heinz sought coverage for losses incurred in connection with a product recall in China, Starr refused the claim and sought to rescind the Recall Policy. As the court explained, “rescind” means to have the insurance policy declared void as if it never existed.

Interestingly, the court employed an advisory jury to assist in the determination. The court agreed with the jury’s finding that Heinz had omitted and misrepresented certain material facts in its application for insurance. Specifically, the application asked two pertinent questions: (1) whether “any fines or penalties been assessed against the Applicant by any food or similar regulatory body over the last 3 years” and (2) whether “the Applicant experienced a withdrawal, recall or stock recovery of any products or has the Applicant been responsible for the costs incurred by a third party in recalling or withdrawing any products.” Heinz answered no to the first question and did not answer the second question.

Contrary to its application answers, the evidence presented at trial showed that Heinz was fined or undertook recalls in connection with a number of contaminated food products. Heinz’s Global Insurance Director sought to excuse certain of the less than accurate application answers by stating that the losses at issue would not have been covered by a Recall Policy. The court did not credit that testimony.

Particularly damning was the fact that Heinz’s Global Insurance Director had previously disclosed the very same contamination losses that had been withheld from the insurer to Heinz’s Senior Management. According to the court, “simply put, if this information was sufficiently important for [the Global Insurance Director] to include in a presentation memorandum to the Heinz senior management, it was sufficiently important to include on the Application, yet [he] failed to do so.” The court found further that the Global Insurance Director made the misrepresentations for one or both of the following reasons: (1) to obtain a lower SIR and/or (2) to secure a lower insurance premium.

Although instances of insurance policy rescission for fraud and misrepresentation are rare, it does occur. This case serves as a painful reminder to all policyholders and their risk managers of the importance of full and complete candor when answering insurance application questions.

Questions? Let me know.

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