A church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi proved that its insurer did not properly handle its claim resulting from tornado damage (right), resulting in a damages award of over $1,000,000. The Fifth Circuit affirmed against challenges by both sides; as to the church’s request for punitive damages, it held: “Taking the facts in the light most favorable to Mount Carmel, GuideOne’s alleged conduct did not rise to the necessary level of an independent tort that would warrant punitive damages. Mount Carmel merely alleges that GuideOne had ‘knowledge of the financial harm that would result’ from its cancellation of the policy. But this type of knowledge is likely present for many cancellations and alone is not sufficient to rise to the level of an independent tort. Accordingly, it does not warrant punitive damages.” GuideOne Elite Ins. Co. v. Mount Carmel Ministries, No. 15-60915 (Jan. 23, 2017, unpublished).
OneBeacon Ins. Co. v. Welch & Assocs. involved insurance coverage for an attorney malpractice claim, arising for an exclusion for knowledge about “any actual or alleged act, error, omission or breach of duty arising out of the rendering or the failure to render professional legal services.” Since even the carrier agreed that “[o]n its face, this covers every single thing an attorney does or does not do, wrongful or not,” the Fifth Circuit found that the exclusion could not be applied literally without making the contract illusory. Focusing on the alleged “wrongful act,” the Court found that the relevant lawyer’s awareness of a discovery order and potential dispute was not equivalent to knowledge that a rare death-penalty sanction award would result. The Court also sustained an award of additional violations for an intentional violation of the Insurance Code with respect to the handling of the claim. No. 15-20402 (Nov. 14, 2016).
Color Star Growers (a wholesale distributor of flowers) went into bankruptcy; their lenders sued the Verbeeks in Texas state court, alleging that they fraudulently induced the loans to Color Star. The Verbeeks sought a defense from the D&O carrier for their company. The insurer successfully obtained summary judgment based on the policy’s “Creditor Exclusion” and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. The exclusion said: “The Insurer shall not be liable to pay any Loss on account of, and shall not be obligated to defend, any Claim brought or maintained by or on behalf of . . . [a]ny creditor of a company or organization in the creditor’s capacity as such, whether or not a bankruptcy or insolvency proceeding involving the company or organization has been commenced.” Rejecting the Verbeeks’ arguments that the state court plaintiffs were suing as “administrative agents” or “investors” rather than creditors, the Court observed that “the alleged facts giving rise to the underlying litigation relate entirely to the state court plaintiffs’ loan agreements with Color Star . . . .” The Court went on to affirm as to the duty to indemnify as well. Marke Am. Ins. Co. v. Verbeek, No. 15-51099 (Sept. 27, 2016, unpublished).
Cal Dive International sued Schmidt (a commercial diver), and Edwards (Schmidt’s attorney in a previous personal injury suit against Cal Dive), alleging that Schmidt had misrepresented his injuries, and seeking restitution of contingent fees paid to Edwards. Cal Dive specifically alleged that it did not believe Edwards knew of the purported fraud. Edwards sought coverage for defense costs, and the Fifth Circuit reversed a judgment in his favor: “Cal Dive’s complaint, for which Edwards seeks defense from Continental, contains no allegations against Edwards, save for his receipt of settlement funds in the nature of attorney’s fees as a result of his client’s alleged fraud. Acts or omissions in the rendering of legal services by Edwards to his client, Schmidt, are simply not at issue.” Edwards v. Continental Casualty Co., No. 15-30827 (Nov. 2, 2016).
Apache Corporation had an insurance policy for computer fraud, which said: “We will pay for loss of, and loss from damage to, money, securities and other property resulting directly from the use of any computer to fraudulently cause a transfer of that property from inside the premises or banking premises: (a) to a person (other than a messenger) outside those premises; or (b) to a place outside those premises.” (emphasis added) The Fifth Circuit, after a “detailed — albeit numbing — analysis of the cited authorities,” concluded that the weight of the case law did not create coverage under this policy for the following events:
- Apache received a call from a vendor (actually, a criminal posing as the vendor) asking that Apache change its payments to a new bank account.
- Apache asked for a formal request on the vendor’s letterhead; one arrived about a week later by email with an attachment on letterhead (from a domain used by the criminals to further pose as the vendor);
- Apache called the number on the letterhead to verify the request, and after thinking it had confirmed the authenticity of the request, began sending payments to a new bank account.
While computer use obviously played a role in the deception, the Court noted: “To interpret the computer-fraud provision as reaching any fraudulent scheme in which an email communication was part of the process would . . . convert the computer-fraud provision to one for general fraud.” Apache Corp. v. Great Am. Ins. Co., No. 15-20499 (Oct. 18, 2016, unpublished).
The parties in AIG Specialty Ins. Co. v. Tesoro Corp. disputed whether limitations had run on an insurance coverage claim involving the identity of the named insured (and in turn, whether that entity owned a refinery subject to difficult environmental remediation orders). As a matter of contract law, the Court agreed that mere receipt of an insurance policy does not necessarily bar a reformation claim. But under Texas limitations principles, the insured could not establish that the insurer had “specialized knowledge” about the subject of refinery ownership, or that the mistake in the policy was inherently undiscoverable — especially then “the mistake is evident from the face of the document.” No. 15-50953 (Oct. 17, 2016).
The unfortuante Noreen Johnson sought to recover from her insurer after her home suffered wind damage from Hurricane Isaac, and then caught fire roughly two years later. The insurer successfully defended against her claim based on her failure to cooperate as required by the policy. In addition to showing her failure to provide required information, the insurer was able to establish prejudice, in that (1) “by significantly altering the state of the house before GeoVera’s agent could appraise it, Johnson effectively negated GeoVera’s appraisal right, as GeoVera could no longer inspect the extent of the smoke damage,” and (2) “by refusing to sit for an examination under oath until over a year after the fire . . . [t]he delay caused Johnson to forget information vital to protect GeoVera from fraud during the claims process.” Johnson v. GeoVera Specialty Ins. Co., No. 15-30803 (Sept. 27, 2016, unpublished).
Insurance coverage litigation provided another example of the tension between the “Scylla” of pleading — the “plead more detail” command from Twombly and Iqbal — and its “Charybids” — the principle of insurance law that “[a]ll doubts regarding the duty to defend are resolved in favor of the insured.” Fed Ins. Co. v. Northfield Ins. Co., No. 14-20633 (Sept. 16, 2016). Here, ltigation about pollution liability led to a dispute about whether a “pollution exclusion” eliminated the duty to defend. The Fifth Circuit reversed a summary judgment in favor of the insurer, noting: “ExxonMobil’s petition does not attach any of the petitions in the Louisiana Litigation. ExxonMobil’s petition provides very little information about the nature of the claims made in the Louisiana Litigation, for which ExxonMobil seeks indemnity and defense costs from [the insured].” As a result, “because of the breadth and generality of the allegations in ExxonMobil’s state court petition, we cannot say that all of the claims fall clearly within the exclusion.”
Tesoro, an oil refiner and marketer, submitted a claim to National Union under its commercial crime insurance policy, involving the forgery of key documents by a Tesoro employee about the account of Enmex, a substantial Tesoro customer. The Fifth Circuit reasoned that the “Employee Theft” provision of the policy required a showing of an unlawful taking, and that Tesoro failed to show had “the forged letters of credit and security agreement induced Tesoro to continue selling fuel to Enmex or what evidence supports this assertion . . . In sum, Tesoro failed to offer any evidence that it would have acted differently had it known the Enmex account was actually not secured.” Tesoro Refining v. National Union, No. 15-50405 (July 29, 2016).
Litigation about the failed drilling of an oil well led to insurance litigation under Louisiana’s Direct Action Statute. The district court granted summary judgment to the insured as to its insurers’ duty to indemnify, and the Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that the indemnity issue was not yet justiciable: “[I]t is readily apparent that ‘facts can be developed’ at trial that would support a finding that at least some of [the insured’s] conduct related to the failed directional drilling project triggered coverage under the relevant policies. Beyond the already existing testimony . . . [the insured] points to a number of witnesses who were not deposed but who could testify at trial on relevant issues such as subcontractors, surveyors, and consultants.” Solstice Oil & Gas LLC v. Seneca Ins. Co., No. 15-30874 (July 21, 2016).
Extensive tornado damage to a building at the University of Southern Mississippi led to a hard-fought dispute among insurers. The Fifth Circuit’s detailed affirmance of the district court’s opinion turned on this observation about the losing insurer’s postition: “Were this construction adopted, insurers who covered the same risk would be incentivized to enter into a stare-down, each waiting for the other to blink first in order to seize the opportunity to deny coverage. Such an outcome is neither reasonable nor commercially practicable.” Southern Ins. Co. v. Affiliated FM Ins. Co., No. 15060742 (July 21, 2016). (The opinion also features a rare appellate shout-out to T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men.)