Justia Insurance Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of New Jersey
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In September 2016, defendant Trend Motors, Ltd. (Trend), provided defendant Mary Aquilar with a loaner vehicle for her personal use while her vehicle was being serviced. Aquilar’s negligent operation of the loaner vehicle caused it to strike plaintiff Tyrone Huggins’s car. Huggins sustained serious injuries as a result. GEICO insured Aquilar through an automobile policy. Trend held a garage policy with Federal Insurance Company (Federal) that insured Trend’s vehicles for up to $1,000,000 in liability coverage. The definition of an “insured” in the Federal policy purported to extend liability coverage to Trend’s customers using Trend’s vehicles only if the customer lacked the minimum insurance required by law. Huggins filed a complaint seeking compensation for the injuries and loss of income he suffered as a result of the accident. Federal disclaimed liability, arguing that Aquilar did not fit the policy’s definition of an insured because she held $15,000 in bodily injury coverage through GEICO. The trial court held that the Federal policy’s definition of an insured constituted an illegal escape clause and held Federal to the full policy limit of $1,000,000 in liability coverage. The Appellate Division declined to review the trial court’s ruling. The New Jersey Supreme Court concurred with the trial court’s ruling that the provision in the garage policy at issue constituted an illegal escape clause which could not be used to evade the minimum liability requirements for dealership vehicles set by the Chief Administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC). The Court ordered the reformation of Federal’s policy to the $100,000/$250,000 dealer-licensure minimum liability coverage required by N.J.A.C. 13:21-15.2(l). View "Huggins v. Aquilar" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved an insurance coverage dispute arising out of water damage caused by Superstorm Sandy to properties owned by plaintiff New Jersey Transit Corporation (NJ Transit). At the time Sandy struck in October 2012, NJ Transit carried a $400 million multi-layered property insurance policy program through eleven insurers. When NJ Transit sought coverage for the water damage to its properties brought about by the storm, certain of its insurers invoked the $100 million flood sublimit in NJ Transit’s policies and declined to provide coverage up to the policy limit. NJ Transit filed an action seeking a declaratory judgment against those insurers. The trial court found that the $100 million flood sublimit did not apply to NJ Transit’s claims; it also found that the insurers had not submitted sufficient evidence to support their claims for reformation of the policies. The court accordingly entered summary judgment in favor of NJ Transit and denied the insurers’ motions for summary judgment. The Appellate Division affirmed. Finding no reversible error in the Appellate Division's judgment, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. View "New Jersey Transit Corporation v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd's of London" on Justia Law

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The Third Circuit Court of Appeals certified a question of law to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The matter before the federal court involved a dispute between a workers' compensation insurance carrier and its insured, a public employer. Both plaintiff, the City of Asbury Park (the City), and its insurance carrier, defendant Star Insurance Company (Star), sought reimbursement of monies paid toward an injured firefighter’s workers’ compensation claim from funds he recouped through settlement with a third-party tortfeasor. The funds available for reimbursement will not cover the full amount paid collectively by the City and Star. The question was whether, under the equitable “made-whole” or “make-whole” doctrine, the City had priority to recover what it paid before Star could recover any of its losses. The Supreme Court answered the certified question in the negative. Under equitable principles of New Jersey law, the made-whole doctrine did not apply to first-dollar risk, such as a self-insured retention or deductible, that is allocated to an insured under an insurance policy. View "City of Asbury Park v. Star Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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New Jersey Transit Corporation (New Jersey Transit) sought to recover workers’ compensation benefits paid to an employee, David Mercogliano, who sustained injuries in a work-related motor vehicle accident. It sued the individuals allegedly at fault in the accident, defendants Sandra Sanchez and Chad Smith, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-40, a provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act that authorized employers and workers’ compensation carriers that have paid workers’ compensation benefits to injured employees to assert subrogation claims. The issue this case presented for the New Jersey Supreme Court's review was whether that subrogation action was barred by the Auto Insurance Cost Recovery Act (AICRA). The trial court granted defendants’ motion, ruling that New Jersey Transit could not assert a claim based on economic loss. It noted that N.J.S.A. 39:6A-2(k) defined economic loss for purposes of AICRA to mean “uncompensated loss of income or property, or other uncompensated expenses, including, but not limited to, medical expenses.” In the trial court’s view, because New Jersey Transit’s workers’ compensation carrier paid benefits for all of Mercogliano’s medical expenses and lost income, he had no “uncompensated loss of income or property,” and thus sustained no economic loss for purposes of AICRA. The trial court relied on Continental Insurance Co. v. McClelland, 288 N.J. Super. 185 (App. Div. 1996), and policy considerations in reaching its decision. The Appellate Division reversed that judgment, agreeing with New Jersey Transit that its subrogation action arose entirely from “economic loss comprised of medical expenses and wage loss, not noneconomic loss.” However, it rejected the trial court’s view that an employer’s or workers’ compensation carrier’s subrogation claim based on benefits paid for economic loss contravened AICRA’s legislative intent. Finding no error in the appellate court's judgment, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. View "New Jersey Transit Corporation v. Sanchez" on Justia Law

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Guerline Felix’s vehicle collided with Brian Richards’ vehicle in New Jersey. Richards was insured under a New Jersey automobile insurance policy issued by AAA Mid-Atlantic Insurance Company (AAA). The policy provided bodily injury (BI) liability coverage, as well as uninsured and underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage. Felix was insured by the Government Employee Insurance Company (GEICO) under a policy written in Florida. That policy provided up to $10,000 in property liability and personal injury protection (PIP) benefits, but it did not provide any BI liability. Felix sued Richards for personal injuries, and, in a separate action, Richards sued Felix and AAA for personal injuries. AAA then filed a third-party complaint against GEICO, claiming that GEICO’s policy was automatically deemed to include $15,000/$30,000 in BI coverage and that payment would eliminate the claim for UM/UIM coverage by AAA. The motion court determined that the New Jersey "deemer" statute applied to GEICO’s policy, rejecting the argument that the statute created a carve-out for BI coverage based upon the basic policy, as well as GEICO’s constitutional challenge. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court granted the petition for certification filed by GEICO. The Supreme Court concluded after review that the deemer statute did not incorporate by reference the basic policy’s BI level for insurers, like GEICO, to which the second sentence of N.J.S.A. 17:28-1.4 applied. From the perspective of the insurers’ obligation, the required compulsory insurance liability limits remained $15,000/$30,000. As to the equal protection claim, New Jersey insureds were the ones who had a choice to purchase less than the presumptive minimum BI amount. The obligation of in-state insurers to offer and provide that minimum was the same as the obligation imposed under the deemer statute’s second sentence on authorized insurers writing an out-of-state policy. "The equal protection claim therefore falls flat," and the Appellate Division's judgment was affirmed. View "Felix v. Richards" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff Barbara Orientale brought a personal-injury lawsuit against defendant Darrin Jennings for allegedly setting off an automobile accident that caused her to suffer permanent injuries. The trial court entered partial summary judgment against Jennings, finding that he was at fault for causing the accident. Orientale and Jennings then settled the lawsuit for $100,000, the full amount of liability coverage on Jennings’s vehicle. Orientale maintained an underinsured motorist policy with defendant Allstate New Jersey Insurance Company (Allstate) that provided coverage for damages up to $250,000. Orientale initiated a claim for her personal-injury damages in excess of $100,000 allegedly caused by the accident. Although the jury returned a verdict finding that Orientale suffered a permanent injury, it awarded damages in the amount of only $200. Because the jury award did not exceed Orientale’s $100,000 settlement with Jennings, Allstate’s underinsured motorist coverage policy was not triggered. Orientale moved for a new damages trial or an additur. The judge vacated the damages award, finding that it constituted a miscarriage of justice, and granted an additur in the amount of $47,500, the lowest award in his estimation that a reasonable jury could have returned in light of the evidence presented at trial. Plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of additur on the basis that the judge acts as a “super jury” in setting a damages award in violation of the right to a jury trial. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that when a damages award is deemed a miscarriage of justice requiring the grant of a new trial, the acceptance of a damages award fixed by the judge must be based on the mutual consent of the parties. "Going forward, in those rare instances when a trial judge determines that a damages award is either so grossly excessive or grossly inadequate that the grant of a new damages trial is justified, the judge has the option of setting a remittitur or an additur at an amount that a reasonable jury would award given the evidence in the case. Setting the figure at an amount a reasonable jury would award -- an amount that favors neither side -- is intended to give the competing parties the greatest incentive to reach agreement. If both parties accept the remittitur or additur, then the case is settled; if not, a new trial on damages must proceed before a jury." View "Orientale v. Jennings" on Justia Law

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In April 2007, Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada received an application for a $5 million insurance policy on the life of Nancy Bergman. The application listed a trust as the sole owner and beneficiary of the policy. Bergman’s grandson signed as trustee; the other members of the trust were all investors, and all strangers to Bergman. The investors paid most if not all of the policy’s premiums. Sun Life issued the policy. About five weeks after the policy was issued, the grandson resigned as trustee and appointed the investors as successor co-trustees. The trust agreement was amended so that most of the policy’s benefits would go to the investors, who were also empowered to sell the policy. More than two years later, the trust sold the policy and the investors received nearly all of the proceeds from the sale. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. eventually obtained the policy in a bankruptcy settlement and continued to pay the premiums. After Bergman passed away in 2014, Wells Fargo sought to collect the policy’s death benefit. Sun Life investigated the claim, uncovered discrepancies, and declined to pay. Instead, Sun Life sought a declaratory judgment that the policy was void ab initio, or from the beginning. Wells Fargo counterclaimed for breach of contract and sought the policy’s $5 million face value; if the court voided the policy, Wells Fargo sought a refund of the premiums it paid. The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey partially granted Sun Life’s motion for summary judgment, finding New Jersey law applied and concluded “that this was a STOLI [(stranger-originated life insurance)] transaction lacking insurable interest in violation of [the State’s] public policy. . . . As such, it should be declared void ab initio.” The court also granted Wells Fargo’s motion to recover its premium payments, reasoning that “Wells Fargo is not to blame for the fraud here” and that “[a]llowing Sun Life to retain the premiums would be a windfall to the company.” Both parties appealed. Finding no dispositive New Jersey case law, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified two questions of law to the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding the Sun Life policy. In response to the certified questions, the Supreme Court found that STOLI policies were against public policy and void ab initio. The Court also noted that a party may be entitled to a refund of premium payments depending on the circumstances. “Among other relevant factors, courts should consider a later purchaser’s participation in and knowledge of the original illicit scheme.” View "Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A." on Justia Law

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In a consolidated appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered one central issue: whether the New Jersey Legislature intended to deviate from its highly regulated no-fault system of first-party self-insurance to cover medical expenses arising from automobile accidents when it amended the statutory scheme to allow an insured to elect smaller amounts of personal injury protection (PIP) under a standard policy. Each plaintiff in this appeal was injured in a car accident. Each was insured under a standard policy with insurance that provided for $15,000 in PIP coverage instead of the default amount of $250,000. Neither was able to sustain a claim for bodily injury (noneconomic loss) due to each policy’s limitation-on-lawsuit option. Each sued for outstanding medical bills in excess of their elected PIP coverage ($28,000 and $10,000, respectively). The trial courts ruled against plaintiffs in each matter and prohibited plaintiffs from admitting evidence of their medical expenses that exceeded their $15,000 PIP limits. The Appellate Division consolidated the cases on appeal, and, in a published opinion, reversed both trial court orders. After its review, the Supreme Court could not concluded there was evidence of a clear intention on the part of the Legislature to deviate from the carefully constructed no-fault first-party PIP system of regulated coverage of contained medical expenses and return to fault-based suits consisting solely of economic damages claims for medical expenses in excess of an elected lesser amount of available PIP coverage. "Unless the Legislature makes such an intent clearly known, the Court will not assume that such a change was intended by the Legislature through its amendments to the no-fault system in the Automobile Insurance Cost Reduction Act." View "Haines v. Taft" on Justia Law

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Third-party defendant Dr. George Likakis was charged with aggravated arson and insurance fraud after a fire destroyed a building he owned (the Property). Plaintiff RSI Bank held a first-priority mortgage on the Property, and defendant/third-party plaintiff The Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company (Providence) issued a commercial liability policy that covered the Property. Following the fire, Likakis and RSI Bank submitted insurance claims. Providence denied both sets of claims. Providence’s denial of coverage prompted the filing of two actions in the Law Division: (1) filed by Likakis against Providence; and (2) an action gave rise to this appeal: RSI Bank’s claims against Providence for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, violations of the Consumer Fraud Act, and bad faith. Providence filed a third-party complaint against Likakis, alleging claims for indemnification. Both civil lawsuits were pending when criminal proceedings commenced against Likakis. Likakis was indicted; Providence did not object to Likakis’ admission to the PTI program, provided he paid restitution, committed to protect/compensate Providence from all claims that might be brought by RSI, and dismissal of Likakis’ suit against Providence. With Likakis’s consent - but no assessment of his ability to pay - the court also imposed the three conditions that Providence had requested. During his PTI term, Likakis paid Providence the specific restitution amount and dismissed with prejudice his lawsuit. Likakis did not make any payment related to the separate indemnification provision. With the prosecutor’s consent, the PTI court terminated Likakis’s PTI supervision and dismissed his indictment. RSI Bank and Providence settled their coverage dispute. Providence agreed to pay RSI Bank to settle all of the bank’s claims based on the insurance policy and moved for summary judgment against Likakis based on the provision of the PTI agreement. The court held that the indemnification provision of the PTI agreement was enforceable against Likakis and ordered Likakis to pay Providence the portion of the settlement funds Providence attributed to fire damage, less the amount Likakis had paid during his PTI supervisory period. Likakis appealed, and an Appellate Division panel affirmed. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, finding an open-ended agreement to indemnify the victim of the participant’s alleged offense for unspecified future losses was not an appropriate condition of PTI. Moreover, a restitution condition of PTI was inadmissible as evidence in a subsequent civil proceeding against the PTI participant. The indemnification provision of the PTI agreement at issue should have played no role in this civil litigation. View "RSI Bank v. The Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Company" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved questions about the insurance coverage available to defendant Honeywell International, Inc. (Honeywell) for thousands of bodily-injury claims premised on exposure to brake and clutch pads (friction products) containing asbestos. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification to address two issues: (1) whether the law of New Jersey or Michigan (the headquarters location of Honeywell’s predecessor when the disputed excess insurance policies were issued) should control in the allocation of insurance liability among insurers for nationwide products-liability claims; and (2) whether it was error not to require the policyholder, Honeywell, to contribute in the allocation of insurance liability based on the time after which the relevant coverage became unavailable in the marketplace (that is, since 1987). The Supreme Court determined New Jersey law on the allocation of liability among insurers applied in this matter, and the Court set forth the pertinent choice-of-law principles to resolve this dispute over insurance coverage for numerous products-liability claims. Concerning the second question, on these facts, the Court also affirmed the determination to follow the unavailability exception to the continuous-trigger method of allocation set forth in Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. United Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 437 (1994). View "Continental Insurance Company v. Honeywell International, Inc." on Justia Law