Monday, July 20, 2020

$7,332.02 a Day -- Bench-Trying a First-Party Property Coverage Dispute

Ever wonder how the non-jury trial of a first-party property coverage dispute plays out in court?  Wonder no more.

Christine Wagner's single family home in New Hartford, New York, sustained fire damage on May 1, 2016.  She and her homeowners insurer, New York Central Mutual Fire Insurance Company, agreed that the fire destroyed the home's garage, "bonus room" above the garage, and a breezeway connecting the home to the garage.  Wagner and NYCM disagreed over the extent to which the home sustained indirect damage.  The policy afforded replacement cost coverage.

Wagner's contractor and public adjuster submitted repair estimates of approximately $411,000 (including code upgrades) and $338,000 "plus code upgrades", respectively.  NYCM obtained and submitted a contractor's estimate and its claim handler's estimate of approximately $175,000 and $216,000, respectively.  NYCM ultimately paid Wagner the approximately $216,000 amount.

Wagner sued NYCM in May 2017, seeking "the approximate sum of $100,000.00 or the appproriate amount to be determined by the court."  In March 2018 Wagner's counsel filed her note of issue and statement of readiness for a non-jury trial.

The action was tried to Oneida County Supreme Court Patrick MacRae over the course of three days on November 13, 14 and 15, 2018.  On June 26, 2019, Justice MacRae issued his 21-page, detailed decision awarding Wagner a total of $21,996.06.  A month later, Wagner filed a judgment, with interest and costs, against NYCM for $28,413.10.  Ten days later, Wagner filed a notice of appeal.

Those who would take such a first-party property coverage dispute to trial -- especially a bench trial -- would do well to review Justice MacRae's detailed decision, who began and framed his decision with:
The central question is this: is plaintiff entitled to compensation above the $216,018.92 that has been paid by defendant?  
The first factor that bears on the determination of the appropriate amount of damages is whether plaintiff has met her burden of proof. The burden here is one of preponderance. So long as plaintiff's proof is sufficient to suggest that her evidence carries sufficient weight to tip the balance in her favor, she meets that burden and, at least in the first analysis, is entitled to a finding in her favor. It is only if plaintiff has met that initial burden that the burden would shift to the defendant to come forward with evidence that at least re-balances the scale. If the defendant does this, it has overcome plaintiff's evidence and is entitled to a finding in its favor. 
Plaintiff indicated at trial that the three (3) areas in which she was claiming entitlement to more than the defendant paid were: 1. Contents; 2. Code upgrades; and 3. An additional amount for the general cost of repair (Tr. 5-9).
On page 21, Justice MacRae concluded:
On the basis of the foregoing, plaintiff is awarded the following amounts above the $216.018.92 already paid by defendant.  For contents, $4.079.36; For the following code items: knob and tube wiring, $12,750.00; sheathing upgrade, $1,792.20; insulation upgrade, $1,699.50; and deck attachment, $1,675.00, for a total for code upgrades of $17,916.70; for a total award of $21,996.03.
On July 17, 2020, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, unanimously AFFIRMED Justice MacRae's decision and the corresponding judgment without writing.  I surmise the Fourth Department concluded that Justice MacRae had written enough.

If there is a moral of this story, I suppose it could be that trying property coverage actions to a single judge rather than a petit jury might be the way to go for parties of the first and second part to insurance contracts, especially during a pandemic when jury trials are few and far between -- literally and figuratively.  I've tried several first-party property coverage action to a judge with good results for my insurer clients.  Especially when such a trial revolves around issues of scope and pricing/damages -- issues often compared in potential juror engagement and interest to watching paint dry -- entrusting the outcome to a sitting judge should, at least in theory, always be less risky (albeit usually less instant) than asking a jury to pay focused attention for three days, understand the technical (and dry) testimony on damages, and render a well-reasoned and accurate verdict.  Right?

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