Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Defending the Insured's Default Without Disclaiming Dooms the Declaratory Judgment Action

Montpelier US Ins. Co. v. 240 Mt. Hope Realty Co.
(SDNY, decided 10/22/2015)

I can see and understand what the insurer was trying to do here, but by not immediately disclaiming for late notice, it in effect conceded coverage.

12/07/12     tenant's pit bull bites a child attending a birthday party at the insured premises
01/07/13     insured served with summons and complaint
07/08/13     default judgment granted against insured
08/19/13     insurer (MUSIC) receives first notice of the incident, claim, suit and default
11/18/13     defense counsel retained by MUSIC succeeds in vacating the default
05/15/14     Appellate Division, First Department, reverses the vacatur and reinstates the default
06/12/14     MUSIC sends letter to insured reserving MUSIC's right to disclaim based on late notice
08/12/14     MUSIC commences declaratory judgment action in state court
02/13/15     MUSIC recommences DJ action in federal court

New York Insurance Law § 3420(d)(2) provides:
(2) If under a liability policy issued or delivered in this state, an insurer shall disclaim liability or deny coverage for death or bodily injury arising out of a motor vehicle accident or any other type of accident occurring within this state, it shall give written notice as soon as is reasonably possible of such disclaimer of liability or denial of coverage to the insured and the injured person or any other claimant.
In GRANTING the insured's cross motion for summary judgment, the District Court agreed that MUSIC was required to defend and indemnify the insured the underlying personal injury action action due to MUSIC's failure to disclaim coverage in a reasonably timely fashion as required by Insurance Law § 3420(d)(2):
Time begins to run for purposes of such disclaimer when the insurer knows the grounds for its entitlement to disclaim. See First Fin. Ins. Co. v. Jetco Contracting Corp., 1 N.Y.3d 64, 66 (2003) ("[O]nce the insurer has sufficient knowledge of facts entitling it to disclaim, or knows that it will disclaim coverage, it must notify the policyholder in writing as soon as is reasonably possible."); accord Liberty Ins. Underwriters Inc. v. Great Am. Ins. Co., No. 11-CV-6973 (DLC), 2012 WL 2359876, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. June 20, 2012). And where Section 3420(d)(2) applies, the insured need not show prejudice from the delayed disclaimer; instead, the only question is whether the delay was "unreasonable." See Adams v. Chi. Ins. Co., 49 F. App'x 346, 349 n.** (2d Cir. 2002) (summary order); Jewish Cmty. Ctr. of Staten Island v. Trumbull Ins. Co., 957 F. Supp. 2d 215, 236-37 (E.D.N.Y. 2013) (citing cases); KeySpan Gas E. Corp. v. Munich Reinsurance Am., Inc., 23 N.Y.3d 583, 590 (2014) (noting that 3420(d)(2) "creates a heightened standard for disclaimer that depends merely on the passage of time rather than on the insurer's manifested intention to release a right as in waiver, or on prejudice to the insured as in estoppel" (internal quotation marks omitted)); First Fin. Ins., 1 N.Y.3d at 67 n.2 (noting that, under Section 3420(d)(2), "prejudice is of no legal relevance"). 
 Here, MUSIC had knowledge of sufficient facts to disclaim coverage when it received notice of the default judgment on August 19, 2013. At that point, MUSIC would indisputably have been entitled to disclaim on the ground that Defendants' notice was untimely and that MUSIC was prejudiced by the delay; in fact, there is an "irrebuttable presumption of prejudice" that applies when, as here, an insurer receives notice of a claim only after the insured's liability has been determined. See N.Y. Ins. Law § 3420(c)(2)(B). But MUSIC elected not to disclaim coverage and did not make any reservation of its right to disclaim coverage, instead taking up Defendants' defense in the underlying lawsuit; indeed, it did not disclaim coverage until nearly ten months later, on June 12, 2014. (See Compl. ¶¶ 30, 34; Defs.' Mem. 4, 6). That ten-month delay, with no explanation, is comparable to — indeed, longer than — unexcused delays that the Second Circuit and other courts have held to be unreasonable as a matter of New York law. See, e.g., Bluestein & Sander v. Chi. Ins. Co., 276 F.3d 119, 122 (2d Cir. 2002) (nine months); Adams, 49 F. App'x at 349 (eight months); First Fin., 1 N.Y.3d at 66 (forty-eight days); West 16th St. Tenants Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Mut. Ins. Co., 736 N.Y.S.2d 34, 35 (1st Dep't 2002) (thirty days); Colonial Penn Ins. Co. v. Pevzner, 698 N.Y.S.2d 310, 310 (2d Dep't 1999) (forty-one days); Hartford Ins. Co. v. Nassau Cnty., 46 N.Y.2d 1028, 1029-30 (1979) (two months); Allstate Ins. Co. v. Gross, 27 N.Y.2d 263, 266-67 (1970) (seven months); see also, e.g., N.Y. State Ins. Fund v. Mt. Vernon Fire Ins. Co., 371 F. App'x 207, 210 (2d Cir. 2010) (amended summary order) (discussing cases involving unexplained delays of two months and forty-eight days); cf. O'Dowd v. Am. Sur. Co. of N.Y., 3 N.Y.2d 347, 355 (1957) ("It is clear that when an insurer defends an action on behalf of an insured, in his stead, with knowledge of facts constituting a defense to the coverage of the policy, it is thereafter estopped from asserting that the policy does not cover the claim."). It follows that MUSIC must defend and indemnify Defendants and the latter are entitled to summary judgment. 
MUSIC unsuccessfully argued that its time to disclaim did not begin to run until the First Department, Appellate Division, reinstatement the default against the insured in the underlying personal injury action:
As the New York Court of Appeals has explained, in enacting Section 3420(d), the New York State Legislature "intended to expedite the disclaimer process, thus enabling a policyholder to pursue other avenues expeditiously." First Fin. Ins., 1 N.Y.3d at 68. Thus, the "timeliness of an insurer's disclaimer is measured from the point in time when the insurer first learns of the grounds for disclaimer of liability or denial of coverage." Id. at 68-69 (internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added). Here, MUSIC first learned of the grounds for denial of coverage on August 19, 2013, when it received notice of the underlying lawsuit and the default judgment entered against Defendants. See, e.g., West 16th St. Tenants Corp., 736 N.Y.S.2d at 35 (holding that an insurer's thirty-day delay in disclaiming coverage was unreasonable as a matter of law because the lack of timely notice by the insured "was obvious from the face of the notice of claim" and the insurer "had no need to conduct an investigation before determining whether to disclaim"). At bottom, MUSIC's argument is that it was in the interest of Defendants for it to provide a defense until the appellate process ran its course. But that argument is effectively the same as the policy argument rejected by the New York Court of Appeals in First Financial Insurance Co. See 1 N.Y.3d at 69 (rejecting an argument that delays to explore other sources of insurance for policyholders "should be encouraged because they are for the benefit of the insured," explaining "that they may also be in the insurer's interest in reducing its ultimate risk, and further may detrimentally delay the policyholder's own search for alternative coverage"). And ultimately, in analyzing whether an insurer gave timely notice of its intent to disclaim coverage, it makes more sense to look at the delay in giving such notice and the reasons (or lack thereof) for that delay than it does to the results of litigation thereafter, which could conceivably take months or years to resolve.
In New York, the timeliness of a liability insurer's disclaimer is measured from the point in time when the insurer first learns of the grounds for the disclaimer of liability or denial of coverage.  Write that down.  Or memorize it.

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