Thursday, May 27, 2010

Unnecessary Parties and the Privity of Contract Requirement in Declaratory Judgment Litigation

Brother Jimmy's BBQ, Inc. v. American Intl. Group, Inc.
(Sup. Ct., New York Co., decided 5/18/2010)

I've sometimes thought that if there were a "Roy's Insurance Company",  I'd use the slogan, "Why Think?  Thinking is Hard.  We Insure Stupidity", to niche market companies and businesses that employ those kids from grade school who made the most trips to the local emergency room.  You know, the type who created and acted in the 68th greatest show of the last 25 years, first on MTV, then two and a half times on the big screen, and reportedly coming soon to your local cineplex in 3D.  

Bacardi 151 Bottle with Flame Arrester
Back in March 2008, Brother Jimmy's BBQ would have been my company's kind of risk.  Its Upper West Side Manhattan location, to be precise.  Apparently, when Jerry Lee Lewis' rendition of the early rock classic "Great Balls of Fire" would play on the jukebox, the bartender at Brother Jimmy's would pour Bacardi 151 rum (75.5% ethanol) on the bar and light it on fire.  Unfortunately for 31-year-old financial industry worker Lauren Sclafani, who was seated at the bar with a client to watch some NCAA March Madness basketball, the stunt went horribly wrong when the flame blew back into the bottle (sans its metallic flame arrester?) and turned it into a flamethrower, dousing Sclafani's face, arms and hands with burning rum. After spending three weeks in a burn center for treatment of second- and third-degree burns, Sclafani sued both Brother Jimmy's and Bacardi under theories of negligence and of strict products liability, alleging, among other things, that Bacardi 151 was “defective, hazardous, unreasonably dangerous, and not [a] reasonably safe product.”

But Roy's Insurance Company did not insure Brother Jimmy's in March 2008, Illinois National Insurance Company did, at least under a commercial umbrella liability policy.  When Illinois National allegedly refused to defend the Brother Jimmy's defendants in the underlying Sclafani personal injury action, the Brother Jimmy's entities commenced this declaratory judgment action against Illinois National, American International Group, Inc. (AIG), AIG Domestic Claims, Inc. (AIGDC), various Bacardi entities, and Sclafani.

The Bacardi defendants moved pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss plaintiffs' amended complaint against them, contending that they were not necessary parties to this DJ action, were strangers to the plaintiffs' insurance contract with Illinois National, and would not be inequitably affected by a judgment rendered in this action.  Plaintiffs opposed the Bacardi defendants' motion, arguing that they might be "inequitably affected" by a judgment in this action and, as such, were necessary parties because the aggregate total of collectible insurance policies may influence the trial strategy of plaintiff in the underlying action and because there was the potential for joint and several liability in that action. 

In GRANTING the Bacardi defendants' motion to dismiss, New York County Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman reasoned:
Necessary parties are “[p]ersons who ought to be parties if complete relief is to be accorded between the persons who are parties to the action or who might be inequitably affected by a judgment in the action . . .” (CPLR 1001 [a]; see generally 1-7 Weinstein-Korn-Miller, CPLR Manual 6 7.02). Here, Bacardi is not a necessary party to this action. Plaintiffs do not allege that Bacardi is an insured under the subject policy. Moreover, Bacardi’s potential liability in the underlying action has no bearing on Brother Jimmy’s coverage or the interpretation of the insurance policy. Accordingly, Bacardi’s motion to dismiss must be granted (see Mayer's Cider Mill, lnc. v Preferred Mut, Ins. Co., 63 AD3d 1522, 1523-1524 [4th Dept 2009] [manufacturer and distributor of machine were not necessary parties in insured’s declaratory judgment action against insurer for defense and indemnification in underlying personal injury action]; Silverman v State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 22 Misc 3d 591, 596 [Sup Ct, Nassau County 2008] [insurer’s motion to dismiss for failure to join former employee (the plaintiff in the underlying action) and her husband as necessary parties was denied; “(g)iven the essential nature of this case, these individuals, strangers to the insurance contracts at issue, are not necessary for any of the current parties to obtain complete relief”]).
AIG and AIGDC moved to dismiss plaintiffs' amended complaint on the ground that they were not parties to the commercial umbrella policy and, thus, plaintiffs lacked privity of contract with them.  They further contended that as the parent corporation of Illinois National, AIG could not be held liable for any breach of contract by its affiliates or subsidiaries, and that AIGDC merely acted as a claims administrator for Illinois National.  Plaintiffs opposed that motion on various procedural and substantive grounds.

In GRANTING AIG's and AIGDC's motion to dismiss, Justice Goodman ruled:
Here, the subject policy states that Illinois National was the insurer that issued the policy (Greensfelder Affirm., Exh. A, Declarations Page). The court must, therefore, consider whether AIG may be held liable for a breach of contract by its affiliates or subsidiaries.

Generally, a party seeking to pierce the corporate veil must show: (1) complete domination and control of the subsidiary by the parent with respect to the transaction at issue; and (2) that such domination was used to commit a fraud or wrong against the plaintiff that resulted in the plaintiff's injury (see Matter of Morris v New York State Dept. of Taxation & Fin. , 82 NY2d 135, 141 [1993]; Do Gooder Prods., Inc. v American Jewish Theatre, Inc., 66 AD3d 527, 528 [1st Dept 2009]; Eastern States Elec. Contrs. v Crow Constr. Co., 153 AD2d 522, 523 [1st Dept 1989]). Notably, “[elvidence of domination alone does not suffice without an additional showing that it led to inequity, fraud, or malfeasance’’ (TNS Holdings v MKI Sec. Corp., 92 NY2d 335, 339 [1998]).

In Town of Smithtown v National Union Fire Ins. Co. (191 AD2d 426 [2d Dept 1993]), the plaintiffs commenced a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that their insurers were obligated to defend them in four actions brought by various school districts.  The subject policy was issued by National Union Fire Insurance Company, a subsidiary of AIG. The Court held that “the plaintiffs have failed to allege or tender proof that the parent company, American International Group, Inc., exercised complete dominion and control over National Union Fire Insurance Company in this matter.  Thus, liability of the parent company for the contractual obligations of its subsidiary may not be imposed” (id. at 428).

In the instant case, Brother Jimmy’s does not have a viable cause of action against AIG.  Brother Jimmy’s fails to allege that AIG exercised complete dominion and control over Illinois National. Moreover, Brother Jimmy’s has failed to remedy this defect in opposition to the motion.  AIG is a holding company for Illinois National, and had no involvement in the investigation or denial of plaintiffs’ claims under the policy (Mofsenson Aff., 3, 5).

Nor is there a basis for AIGDC’s liability in this declaratory judgment action.  It is well established that “an agent for a disclosed principal ‘will not be personally bound unless there is clear and explicit evidence of the agent’s intention to substitute or superadd his personal liability for, or to, that of his principal”’ (Savoy Record Co. v Cardinal Export Corp., 15 NY2d 1, 4 [1964], quoting Mencher v Weiss, 306 NY 1,4 [1953]; see also News Am. Mkfg., Inc. v Lepage Bakeries, Inc., 16 AD3d 146, 147 [1st Dept 2005]; Crimmins v Handler & Co., 249 AD2d 89, 91-92 [1st Dept 1998]).  Here, as noted above, the policy states that Illinois National was the company issuing the policy.  AIGDC was not a party to the insurance contract, and there is no evidence that AIGDC intended to substitute its own liability for that of Illinois National.  In addition, the January 9, 2009 disclaimer letter from AIGDC to Brother Jimmy’s NYC Restaurant Holdings, LLC states that “[AIGDC] is the claims administrator on behalf of Illinois National Insurance Company (‘Illinois National')" (Cooper Affirm., Exh. 1 [emphasis supplied]). Thus, AIGDC was acting as agent for Illinois National for purposes of claims administration.
Brother Jimmy's pulled all Bacadi 151 bottles from its bars the day after the accident happened.

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