COMMERCIAL PROPERTY -- BUSINESS INCOME LOSS COVERAGE -- CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES
Bi-Economy Market, Inc. v. Harleysville Ins. Co. of NY
10 N.Y.3d 187 (Ct. Apps. decided 2/19/2008)
Extracontractual damages aren't what they used to be.
On February 19, 2008, the New York Court of Appeals decided a pair of first-party property insurance cases that some have since touted as portending expanding vistas of "bad faith" litigation against insurers in New York.
In Bi-Economy Market, Inc. v. Harleysville Ins. Co. of NY, the 5-2 majority reversed the lower courts' dismissal of the insured's claim for consequential damages allegedly due to the insurer's delay in paying policy benefits. Relying on pre-existing but mostly non-insurance case law, the Court of Appeals held that
in light of the nature and purpose of the insurance contract at issue, as well as Bi-Economy's allegations that Harleysville breached its duty to act in good faith, we hold that Bi-Economy's claim for consequential damages including the demise of its business, was reasonably foreseeable and contemplated by the parties, and thus cannot be dismissed on summary judgment.
To the majority, "the very purpose of business interruption coverage would have made Harleysville aware that if it breached its obligations under the contract to investigate in good faith and pay covered claims it would have to respond in damages to Bi-Economy for the loss of its business as a result of the breach." The Court rejected the insurer's argument that the policy's "consequential loss" exclusion applied to negate coverage for the insured's alleged consequential damages.
In his dissent, Judge Smith opined that the majority's ruling effectively and erroneously re-labels punitive damages as consequential damages, and a "bad faith" failure to pay a claim as a "breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing." Judge Smith warned:
The majority's bad policy choice is more important than the flaws in its reasoning. This attempt to punish unscrupulous insurers will undoubtedly lead to the punishment of many honest ones. Under today's opinions, juries will decide whether claims should have been paid more promptly, or in larger amounts; whether an insurer who failed to pay a claim did so to put pressure on the insured, or from legitimate motives, or from simple inefficiency; and whether, and to what extent, the insurer's slowness and stinginess had consequences harmful to the insured. All these very difficult, often nearly unanswerable, questions will be put to jurors who will usually know little of the realities of either the insured's or the insurer's business. The jurors will no doubt do their best, but it is not hard to predict where their sympathies will lie.
The result of the uncertainty and error that the majority's opinions will generate can only be an increase in insurance premiums. That is the real "consequential damage" flowing from today's holdings.
In the companion case of Panasia Estates, Inc. v. Hudson Ins. Co., the same 5-2 majority affirmed the lower courts' denial of the insurer's motion for partial summary judgment dismissing the plaintiff's claims for consequential damages. Relying on its decision in the Bi-Economy Market case, the majority noted that "consequential damages resulting from a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing may be asserted in an insurance contract context, so long as the damages were 'within the contemplation of the parties as the probable result of a breach at the time of or prior to contracting[.]'" Unlike in the Bi-Economy Market case, however, the Panasia Estates water damage claim was denied in its entirety due to the asserted applicability of one or more policy exclusions. In remanding the case back to Supreme Court, however, the Court of Appeals observed that the lower courts "failed to consider whether the specific damages sought by Panasia were foreseeable damages as the result of Hudson's breach", suggesting that there was not enough information in the record before the Court of Appeals to determine whether the consequential damages Panasia was alleging to have suffered were within the contemplation of the parties when the particular insurance policy at issue incepted.
Some commentators, including this one, believe that the Bi-Economy ruling allowing claims for consequential damages to proceed to triers-of-fact must be limited to insurance claims under commercial property policies that afford business interruption or business income loss coverage. However, Judge Smith's dissent in Bi-Economy pointed out that the Panasia Estates case involved no business interruption coverage.
Numerous signals in Bi-Economy -- including the majority's explicit reference to "the very purpose of business interruption coverage" -- would seem to indicate that its holding will support consequential damage claims only under commercial property insurance policies that afford business interruption or business income loss coverage. In his opinion for the majority, Judge Piggot explained that in "determin[ing] whether consequential damages were reasonably contemplated by the parties [and thus recoverable in a subsequent breach of contract action], courts must look to 'the nature, purpose and particular circumstances of the contract known by the parties[.]'" Having recognized that the nature and purpose of business interruption coverage in a commercial property insurance policy contemplates and is to protect against the loss of business, it is somewhat understandable that the majority concluded that Bi-Economy's claim for the "complete demise of its business" was within the contemplation of the parties at the time the insurance policy incepted.
It remains to be seen whether the Bi-Economy Market and Panasia Estates rulings will be extended to losses and claims arising under other than commercial property insurance policies. In my office we have already seen insureds' counsel seek to assert consequential damage claims in: (1) a late notice declaratory judgment action; (2) no-fault benefits recovery suits; and (3) a homeowners' policy first-party breach of contract suit. If and when we obtain or learn of written decisions addressing the scope of Bi-Economy Market and Panasia Estates, we will re-publish them here.
Meanwhile, to avoid the potential sting of consequential damages -- which by their nature are extracontractual -- in all first-party losses insurers should:
- ask and document whether and, if so, the insured is taking steps to mitigate the loss and return as quickly as possible to pre-loss status;
- use advance payment on condition of reservation of rights forms in offering and making advance payments; and
- pay what you believe you owe, as soon as you determine such amount is owed, and regardless of whether there is yet an agreement or settlement on numbers in place with the insured.
Coverage Counsel has learned that Harleysville has filed a motion to reargue this case to the Court of Appeals. It won't be until late May or early June that we'll know the outcome of that motion.