Category Archives: New York High Court

NEW YORK POLICYHOLDERS MAY BE ON THE HOOK FOR UNINSURED PERIODS EVEN WHEN INSURANCE WAS OTHERWISE UNAVAILABLE

Guest Blogger:  John G. Koch, Weisbrod Matteis & Copley PLLC

 The New York Court of Appeals recently struck a blow to policyholders by relieving an insurer of its obligation to indemnify for that part of a long-term harm that occurred when applicable insurance did not exist in the marketplace. See KeySpan Gas East Corp. v. Munich Reinsurance America Inc. et al., No. APL-2016-00236. As is often the case when a loss occurs over multiple, successive policy periods, gaps in available insurance coverage may appear. Gaps in coverage may exist for a number of reasons, including insurer insolvency, lost policies, policy exclusions or occasionally a policyholder’s failure to purchase insurance. Those gaps present problems when liability for long-term harm is allocated pro rata among triggered insurance policies. In such cases, courts are usually faced with two basic options, depending on the law of the jurisdiction: A court may either shift liability for those gaps in coverage to other insurers of the risk, or it may put policyholders on the hook for the gaps. In Keyspan, New York’s highest court opted for the second option, requiring the insured to shoulder the pro rata share of all those periods in which applicable insurance did not exist in the marketplace.

Keyspan’s basic facts are all too familiar. The insured, Keyspan, is statutorily liable for cleaning up contamination that resulted from years of operations beginning in the late 1800s. Keyspan sought coverage and asserted that any pro rata allocation of cleanup costs should not include periods where insurance covering pollution did not exist in the market place (whether due to a pollution exclusion or the fact that general liability coverage was unavailable to public utilities prior to 1925, as Keyspan’s expert testified).

One of Keyspan’s insurers, a Chubb company (Century Indemnity), challenged Keyspan’s position, asserting that insurance policies it issued in the 1950s and 60s obligate it to pay only for damages attributable to occurrences during those policy periods. Chubb argued the insured should have to pay for the coverage gap due to the unavailability of insurance coverage. The New York Court of Appeals agreed, stating that, in situations where cleanup costs must be allocated pro rata, the “during the policy period” proviso in the policies was inconsistent with excluding from the allocation years where insurance was unavailable. The Court essentially reasoned that the “during the policy period” language controlled and relieved insurers from having to pay damages attributable to periods when the insurer’s policies were not in force.

There are a number of takeaways from Keyspan worth noting.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Keyspan does not address the separate and distinct duty to defend. The duty to defend is not mentioned once in the entire opinion (or in the decisions below). This should come as no surprise because the question before the Court of Appeals was who had to pay damages in the form of cleanup costs. Neither defense costs nor the duty to defend were at issue. In fact, the Court never once mentioned its longstanding, oft-cited seminal decision addressing the duty to defend in long-tail cases: Continental Casualty Co. v. Rapid-American Corp., 609 N.E.2d 506, 514 (N.Y. 1993). Accordingly, Keyspan has no impact on the New York Court of Appeals’ several decisions stating that once the duty to defend is triggered by at least one potentially covered claim, the insurer owes a duty to defend the entire claim, including non-covered allegations, without foisting part of the defense onto its insured.  See, e.g., id.; Fieldston Prop. Owners Ass’n, Inc. v. Hermitage Ins. Co., 945 N.E.2d 1013, 1018 (N.Y. 2011).

Second, the Court of Appeals took care to note that the “unavailability” issue was irrelevant in cases where pro rata allocation is inappropriate, citing to its 2016 decision in Matter of Viking Pump, Inc., 27 NY.3d 244, 255 (2016). Pursuant to Viking Pump, if an insurance policy contains a non-cumulation or prior insurance or similar clause, the “all sums” method applies to the indemnity obligation. In such instances, the policy with the non-cumulation or similar clause and the insurance tower above it must pay all damages up to policy limits, with no proration to the insured for uninsured periods.

Third, Keyspan is at odds with the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ Stonewall decision and the decisions of courts in several other “pro rata” jurisdictions that have refused to shift to the policyholder gaps in coverage due to the unavailability of insurance.  Compare Keyspan, No. APL-2016-00236, with Stonewall Ins. Co. v. Asbestos Claims Mgmt. Corp., 73 F.3d 1178 (2d Cir. 1995); Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. United Ins. Co., 650 A.2d 974 (N.J. 1994). The Court defended its departure from other courts’ rulings by asserting that, in New York, the language of the policy is paramount, whereas other courts, it asserted, focused instead on the public policy of maximizing insurance coverage.

This justification illustrates the tension between touting the policy language as paramount while at the same time adopting the legal fiction that an indivisible long-term loss can be fairly allocated based on time on the risk. By way of illustration, isn’t it true that in most cases environmental damage continuing after 1986 is at least in part attributable to discharges from preceding decades? For example, a migrating contaminated groundwater plume may cause continuing damage, but that continuing damage is undoubtedly also due to the fact that the groundwater is contaminated in the first place from discharges long ago. How is it improper to ask an insurer that issued coverage while discharges were occurring to pay for a part of the damage that results from the continued presence of pollutants in periods where coverage is no longer available in the marketplace? What about the proviso that the insurance policy provides coverage for all sums the insured must pay as damages due to “continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general conditions”—i.e., the continued exposure of soil and groundwater to preexisting contamination?

For that matter, what if most of the harm at issue occurred during early operations when discharges were often unregulated, more frequent and more toxic? It may still be impossible to establish the precise quantity and quality of harm during every policy period, but generally speaking, why should insurers on the risk during those earlier years be allowed to pass off a disproportionate share of an “indivisible” liability to the insured for years when no coverage was available? Isn’t this especially odd when, often, the cause of the harm during that post-1986 period—continuing migration of groundwater contaminated by discharges from long ago—begins to attenuate in the later years? It is difficult to find justification for these incongruities in the policy language.

Fourth, one might expect the Keyspan ruling to raise a whole host of new problems in allocation cases where New York law applies. Perhaps some policyholders may be more likely to take on the fact burden of proving that a loss is divisible and can be attributed to certain policy periods on a principled basis—certainly not something that will promote judicial efficiency or economy. At the very least, policyholders will be sure to assert, rightly so, that the coverage block for purposes of allocation should end as soon as the potential liability for environmental harm became known, if not earlier. Indeed, how can an allocation fairly be accomplished with an open-ended coverage block? Will coverage end when a slurry wall is installed? When regulatory standards are met and there is no longer a legal obligation to remediate? When a remedial investigation/feasibility study is complete and estimated cleanup costs are more or less known? When “additional” or “new” damage is de minimis?

None of these latter end-dates makes sense, especially in the context of a pro rata allocation that rests on the legal fiction that an equal amount of harm resulted from every occurrence in every policy period from inception to the present. Needless to say, these issues may make pro rata allocation in New York more difficult, not less, and will likely require more guidance from New York courts. It’ll be interesting.

For more information on insurance coverage law, including news, updates and links to important information in the industry and how it may affect your business, follow my blog, or twitter handle: @CoverageLawAtty.

 

START SPREADIN’ THE NEWS…NEW YORK’S HIGHEST COURT SAYS PRO RATA ALLOCATION IS LEAVING TODAY

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Guest Blogger: John G. Koch, Weisbrod Matteis & Copley PLLC

In a much anticipated decision, New York’s highest court handed policyholders a significant victory in In re Viking Pump, Inc. & Warren Pumps, LLC, Insurance Appeals, No. 59 (N.Y. May 3, 2016).  In the context of long-tail bodily injuries or property damage spanning multiple policy periods, the Court declared that policy language is the King of New York and trumps all else when determining whether the “all sums” or “pro rata” allocation approach applies to a liability insurer’s indemnity obligation.  Specifically, the Court held that the “all sums” approach applies to an insurer’s indemnity obligation where the policy contains language inconsistent with a pro rata approach. In this case, the Court reasoned that a “non-cumulation” or “anti-stacking” clause is inconsistent with allocating an insurer’s liability on a pro rata basis.  Although Viking Pump dealt only with the duty to indemnify, its ruling applies to the broader duty to defend and bolsters existing case law recognizing that the duty to defend language in most general liability policies cannot be reconciled with a pro rata allocation approach.

To put the Viking Pump decision in context, insurers usually prefer a pro rata approach, meaning they can only be liable for their share of a loss based on the time period their policies were in force compared to the overall period that the long term injury or property damage occurred.  This rests on the legal fiction that a single indivisible loss taking place over many years can be treated as one occurrence in each successive policy period, which is an expedient method for dividing the indivisible loss among multiple successive policies based upon each policy’s time on the risk, as opposed to the extent of actual injury or damage that took place during any specific period.  Id.  As the Court stated, the foundation of this approach is that no insurer will have to pay for any injury or damage that occurs outside of its policy period.  Viking Pump, slip op. at 11-12.

Insurers usually prefer the pro rata approach because their risk is typically reduced and the risk of lost policies, insurer insolvencies or other gaps in coverage may fall upon the policyholder.  In contrast, under the “all sums” approach, each successive insurance policy triggered by a long term injury or damage is, essentially, jointly and severally liable for the entire loss up until the policy’s limits are exhausted.  Under this approach, the insured may target one or many insurers for the entire loss, leaving it to the insurers to seek contribution from one another.

Prior to Viking Pump, insurers often brandished Consolidated Edison Co. of New York v. Allstate Insurance Co., 98 N.Y.2d 208 (2002), to assert that New York is a “pro rata” state.  But in Viking Pump, the Court of Appeals distinguished and limited the reach of Consolidated Edison by pointing out that it never formed a blanket rule for pro rata allocation and that the policies in Consolidated Edison did not contain non-cumulation or similar clauses.  Viking Pump, slip op. at 11-12.

The Viking Pump Court held that non-cumulation clauses are antithetical to the concept of a pro rata allocation.  Non-cumulation clauses essentially provide that where a single loss triggers successive policies, any amount paid by a prior policy will reduce the limits of the policy containing the non-cumulation clause.  The original purpose of the clause was to prevent policyholders from double dipping when the industry made the switch from accident based policies to occurrence based policies.  Non-cumulation clauses are inconsistent with a pro rata allocation because they “plainly contemplate that multiple successive insurance policies can indemnify the insured for the same loss or occurrence,” whereas the entire premise underlying pro rata allocation is that an insurer cannot be liable for the same loss to the extent the loss occurs in another insurer’s policy period – hence the legal fiction that a separate occurrence takes place in each successive policy period.  Id. at 18 (emphasis added).  The two provisions are logically inconsistent.  Thus, adopting the pro rata approach would render the non-cumulation clause superfluous in violation of New York’s principles of policy interpretation. For this reason, the Court determined that the “all sums” approach applies to policies containing a non-cumulation clause.

In addition to the pro rata versus all sums allocation issue, the Court determined that the proper method for allocating between primary and excess layers of insurance under the “all sums” method is vertical exhaustion – meaning that a single primary policy may be required to respond to the long term loss up to its policy limits, at which time the excess coverage above that policy is pierced on an all sums basis.  The Court rejected the argument that horizontal exhaustion should apply, where all primary coverage would have to be exhausted before any excess coverage must respond to a loss, noting that the excess coverage was tied to the exhaustion of only the underlying policy, not prior or subsequent policies.  Thus, the Court ruled that vertical exhaustion is the appropriate method.

Although Viking Pump specifically addressed the effect of non-cumulation clauses, it undoubtedly stands for the propositions that: (1) no blanket rule controls how an  insurer’s indemnity obligation must be allocated, and (2), where language or a clause in an insurance policy is inconsistent with the pro rata approach, pro rata allocation does not apply.

The latter point is especially important when considering the issue of whether the duty to defend is subject to pro rata allocation.  Most general liability policies provide that the insurer has a duty to defend “any suit” in which at least one potentially covered claim is alleged.  New York courts have interpreted this language as requiring the defense of the entire lawsuit so long as at least one claim is at least in part potentially covered.  A pro rata allocation is inconsistent with the language obligating insurers to “defend” “any suit” if at least one potentially covered claim is alleged.  Thus, the reasoning in Viking Pump suggests that the “all sums” approach is the appropriate method respecting the duty to defend and is consistent with the duty to defend language found in most liability policies.

To learn more, contact John G. Koch

New York High Court Refuses to Enforce Policy Provision That Would Nullify Coverage

Property insurance policies typically include a clause limiting the time (one to two years) after a loss within which the insured may sue the insurer. Generally, those clauses are enforced by the courts, and lawsuits commenced by insureds after the limitations period expires are dismissed. New York’s highest court, however, recently refused to enforce a contractual statute of limitations where the insured was unable to commence suit before the two-year limitation period expired. See Executive Plaza, LLC v. Pierless Insurance Company, (Feb. 13, 2014).

In addition to the two-year limitation period, the insurance policy in Executive Plaza also contained a clause that allowed for the recovery of “replacement cost,” but only after the damaged property is actually repaired or replaced. A fire destroyed the insured’s building, and it could not be reasonably replaced within two years. The insurer denied coverage based on the two-year limitation period.

Although New York courts had previously enforced even shorter limitations periods, the Executive Plaza Court refused to enforce the two-year limitations period because the insured was not able to commence suit before the limitations period expired. “A ‘limitation period’ that expires before suit can be brought is not really a limitation period at all, but simply a nullification of the claim.”

This case serves as an important reminder that insurance policies (and, indeed, all contracts) must be interpreted and applied in a reasonable manner. Insurance policy provisions, even if clear and unambiguous, should not be enforced if it will render coverage valueless.

Questions? Contact Lee Epstein at Weisbrod Matteis & Copley PLLC.

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