Legal Spotlight: February 2014
Subrogation Attempt Rejected
St. Paul Mercury Insurance unsuccessfully sought to recover $14.5 million from a security company after a propane tank exploded in an insured’s building.
A tank of liquefied petroleum — which later was determined to be damaged or defective prior to delivery — had been delivered to a jeweler who rented space in the building.
St. Paul Mercury Insurance, as subrogator for Mallers, claimed the security company was negligent and breached its contract by not stopping or reporting the delivery of the propane tank. The insurer argued that Aargus “knew or should have known” that it was creating “a dangerous condition.”
The contract between the building owner and the security company did not include specific responsibilities regarding the inspection of deliveries.
The Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, rejected the insurer’s argument, granting a summary judgment. That court also rejected affidavits from experts, who offered their opinions that appropriate security procedures would not permit delivery of propane tanks. On appeal, the court agreed, ruling that neither expert was part of the contract between the building owner and security company, and that their views on high-rise security were “irrelevant.”
The appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision that the security company “never undertook a duty to check on propane tanks” as part of its responsibilities.
Scorecard: St. Paul Mercury Insurance Co. will not recoup the payment of $14.5 million it paid in claims following an explosion.
Takeaway: A court will not expand a defendant’s duties beyond what the parties agreed upon in their contract.
Insurer Need Not Pay for Atrium Collapse Settlement
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a summary judgment which allowed ACE American Insurance Co. to reject reimbursement of a $26 million settlement claim.
The claim resulted from the Sept. 5, 2007 collapse of an 18-story, 2,400 ton glass atrium that was being built as part of a $900 million Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Md. Gaylord hired PTJV, a joint venture between Perini Building Co. and Turner Construction Co., to serve as construction manager.
A year after the collapse of the atrium, PTJV filed a complaint against Gaylord for establishment and enforcement of a mechanic’s lien, breach of contract, quantum meruit, and violation of the Maryland Prompt Payment Act. PTJV alleged Gaylord owed it nearly $80 million. Gaylord countersued for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty, seeking reimbursement of about $65 million due to PTJV’s alleged failure to properly manage scheduling and costs, and failing to build a high-quality project at the agreed-upon price.
Gaylord and PTJV agreed to settle the Gaylord action on Nov. 28, 2008, with Gaylord paying an additional $42.3 million and PTJV crediting back $26 million. PTJV did not seek ACE’s consent prior to entering the settlement agreement, and did not seek reimbursement for the settlement amount until about six months afterward, according to court documents.
ACE denied payment, and PTJV filed suit alleging breach of contract and bad faith. A district court upheld ACE’s subsequent motion for a summary judgment because of the lack of prior consent to the settlement, and the appeals court agreed with that decision.
Scorecard: ACE will not need to pay a $26 million insurance claim, following an insured’s settlement of litigation without prior consent.
Takeaway: The decision breaks away from the trend of courts requiring evidence of prejudice when an insurance company denies coverage due to lack of notice.
ERISA Time Limits Upheld
The U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition of a Wal-Mart public relations executive to litigate the denial of long-term disability benefits under the retail store’s plan, administered by Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co.
A unanimous decision of the High Court ruled that Julie Heimeshoff failed to abide by the three year statute of limitations in filing her request for judicial review of the insurance company’s denial of benefits.
Although Heimeshoff filed the litigation within three years after the final denial of benefits, she did not file it within three years after “proof of loss,” as was required in the plan documents.
Suffering from lupus and fibromyalgia, Heimeshoff stopped working in June 2005. In August of that year, she filed a claim for long-term disability benefits, listing her symptoms as “extreme fatigue, significant pain, and difficulty in concentration.” That claim was ultimately denied by Hartford when her rheumatologist never responded to requests for additional information.
Hartford later allowed her to reopen the claim without need for an appeal, if the physician provided the requested information. After another physician evaluation and report, Hartford’s physician concluded Heimeshoff was able to perform the “activities required by her sedentary occupation.”
In her complaint, which was joined by the U.S. government, Heimeshoff argued the controlling statute should be the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which provides a two-tier process of internal review and litigation. A district court granted a motion by The Hartford and Wal-Mart to dismiss the lawsuit. That was upheld by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The High Court agreed, ruling the statute of limitations was reasonable and there were no contrary statutes that should control the process.
Scorecard: The Hartford need not pay long-term disability benefits to the employee.
Takeaway: The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision resolves a split among various federal appeals courts, some of which had upheld plan provisions and others which found they were not enforceable.
Court Reverses Product Liability Decision
Indalex was seeking duty-to-defend coverage from the insurer under a commercial umbrella policy as a result of lawsuits filed in five states alleging the company’s doors and windows were defectively designed or manufactured, resulting in water leakage, mold, cracked walls and personal injury.
The trial court ruled there was no obligation to defend or indemnify Indalex as the claims involved “faulty workmanship” and thus did not constitute an “occurrence.” It dismissed the lawsuit.
On appeal, the higher court found that the underlying claims did count as “occurrences” because the defective products led to damages elsewhere and were “neither expected nor intended from the standpoint of the Insured.”
The court ruled that the lower court improperly ignored legally viable product-liability-based tort claims, rejecting the use of the state’s “gist of the action” doctrine, which prevents a “plaintiff from re-casting ordinary breach of contract claims into tort claims.” The case was remanded to the lower court for further action on the claims.
Scorecard: National Union may incur claims up to $25 million as Indalex defends itself from the underlying lawsuits in five states.
Takeaway: The decision provides an expansive reading of an insurance company’s obligations in commercial general liability coverage.
Coping with Cancellations
Airlines typically can offset revenue losses for cancellations due to bad weather either by saving on fuel and salary costs or rerouting passengers on other flights, but this year’s revenue losses from the worst winter storm season in years might be too much for traditional measures.
At least one broker said the time may be right for airlines to consider crafting custom insurance programs to account for such devastating seasons.
For a good part of the country, including many parts of the Southeast, snow and ice storms have wreaked havoc on flight cancellations, with a mid-February storm being the worst of all. On Feb. 13, a snowstorm from Virginia to Maine caused airlines to scrub 7,561 U.S. flights, more than the 7,400 cancelled flights due to Hurricane Sandy, according to MasFlight, industry data tracker based in Bethesda, Md.
Roughly 100,000 flights have been canceled since Dec. 1, MasFlight said.
Just United, alone, the world’s second-largest airline, reported that it had cancelled 22,500 flights in January and February, 2014, according to Bloomberg. The airline’s completed regional flights was 87.1 percent, which was “an extraordinarily low level,” and almost 9 percentage points below its mainline operations, it reported.
And another potentially heavy snowfall was forecast for last weekend, from California to New England.
The sheer amount of cancellations this winter are likely straining airlines’ bottom lines, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for major U.S. airline companies.
“The airline industry’s fixed costs are high, therefore the majority of operating costs will still be incurred by airlines, even for canceled flights,” Connell wrote in an email. “If a flight is canceled due to weather, the only significant cost that the airline avoids is fuel; otherwise, it must still pay ownership costs for aircraft and ground equipment, maintenance costs and overhead and most crew costs. Extended storms and other sources of irregular operations are clear reminders of the industry’s operational and financial vulnerability to factors outside its control.”
Bob Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant who is principal of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., said that two-thirds of costs — fuel and labor — are short-term variable costs, but that fixed charges are “unfortunately incurred.” Airlines just typically absorb those costs.
“I am not aware of any airline that has considered taking out business interruption insurance for weather-related disruptions; it is simply a part of the business,” Mann said.
Chuck Cederroth, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions’ aviation practice, said carriers would probably not want to insure airlines against cancellations because airlines have control over whether a flight will be canceled, particularly if they don’t want to risk being fined up to $27,500 for each passenger by the Federal Aviation Administration when passengers are stuck on a tarmac for hours.
“How could an insurance product work when the insured is the one who controls the trigger?” Cederroth asked. “I think it would be a product that insurance companies would probably have a hard time providing.”
But Brad Meinhardt, U.S. aviation practice leader, for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said now may be the best time for airlines — and insurance carriers — to think about crafting a specialized insurance program to cover fluke years like this one.
“I would be stunned if this subject hasn’t made its way up into the C-suites of major and mid-sized airlines,” Meinhardt said. “When these events happen, people tend to look over their shoulder and ask if there is a solution for such events.”
Airlines often hedge losses from unknown variables such as varying fuel costs or interest rate fluctuations using derivatives, but those tools may not be enough for severe winters such as this year’s, he said. While products like business interruption insurance may not be used for airlines, they could look at weather-related insurance products that have very specific triggers.
For example, airlines could designate a period of time for such a “tough winter policy,” say from the period of November to March, in which they can manage cancellations due to 10 days of heavy snowfall, Meinhardt said. That amount could be designated their retention in such a policy, and anything in excess of the designated snowfall days could be a defined benefit that a carrier could pay if the policy is triggered. Possibly, the trigger would be inches of snowfall. “Custom solutions are the idea,” he said.
“Airlines are not likely buying any of these types of products now, but I think there’s probably some thinking along those lines right now as many might have to take losses as write-downs on their quarterly earnings and hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “There probably needs to be one airline making a trailblazing action on an insurance or derivative product — something that gets people talking about how to hedge against those losses in the future.”
Medication Monitoring Achieves Better Outcomes
There are approximately three million workplace injuries in any given year. Many, if not the majority, involve the use of prescription medications and a significant portion of these medications is for pain. In fact, prescription medications are so prevalent in workers’ compensation that they account for 70% of total medical spend, with roughly one third being Schedule II opioids (Helios; NCCI; WCRI; et al.). According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), between the years of 1997 and 2007, the daily milligram per person use of prescription opioids in the United States rose 402%, increasing from an average of 74 mg to 369 mg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, in 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions—enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills—and 46 people die every day from an overdose of prescription painkillers in the US. Suffice to say, the appropriate use of opioid analgesics continues to be a serious issue in the United States.
Stakeholders throughout the workers’ compensation industry are seeking solutions to bend the curve away from misuse and abuse and these concerning statistics. Change is happening: The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) and the Work Loss Data Institute have published updated guidelines to promote more clinically appropriate use of opioids in the treatment of occupational injuries. State legislatures are implementing and enhancing prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). The Food and Drug Association (FDA) is rescheduling medications. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are creating abuse-deterrent formulations. Meanwhile payers, generally in concert with their pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), are expending considerable effort to build global medication management programs that emphasize proactive utilization management to ensure injured workers are receiving the right medication at the right time.
A variety of factors can still influence the outcome of a workers’ compensation claim. Some are long-recognized for their affect on a claim; for example, body part, nature of injury, state of jurisdiction, and regulatory policy. In contrast, prescribing practices and physician demographics are perhaps a bit unexpected given the more contemporary data analysis showing their influence on outcomes. Such is the case for medication monitoring. Medication monitoring tools promote patient safety, confirm adherence, and identify potential high-risk, high-cost claims. Three of the more common medication monitoring tools include:
- Urine Drug Testing (UDT) is an analysis of the injured worker’s urine that detects the presence or absence of a specified drug. Although it is not a diagnosis, UDT results are generally a reliable indicator of what is present (and what is not) in the injured body worker’s system. The knowledge gained through the testing helps to minimize risks for undesired consequences including misuse, abuse, and diversion of opioids. With this information in hand, adjustments to the medication therapy regimen or other intervention activities can occur. UDT can also be an agent of positive change, as monitoring often leads to behavior modification, whether in direct response to an unexpected testing result or from the sentinel effect of knowing that medication use is being monitored.
- Medication Agreements or “Pain Contracts” signed by the injured worker and their prescribing doctor serve as a detailed and well-documented informed consent describing the risks and benefits associated with the use of prescription pain medications. Medication agreements help the prescribing doctor set expectations regarding the patient’s adherence to the prescribed medication therapy regimen. They serve as a means to facilitate care and provide for a way to document mutual understanding by clearly delineating the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of each party. Research also suggests that medication agreements promote safety and education as injured workers learn more about their therapy regimen, its risks, and benefits.
- Pill Counts quantify adherence by comparing the number of doses remaining in a pill bottle with the number of doses that should remain based on prescription instructions. Most often, physicians request pill counts at random intervals or the physician may ask the injured worker to bring their medication to all appointments. As a monitoring tool, pill counts can be useful in confirming proper use, or conversely, diversion activities.
On a stand-alone basis, these tools rank high on individual merit. When used together as part of a consolidated medication management approach, their impact escalates quite favorably. The collective use of UDT, Medication Agreements, and pill counts enhance decision-making, eliminating gaps in understanding. Their use raises awareness of potential high-risk, high-cost situations. Moreover, when used in concert with a collaborative effort on the part of the payer, PBM, physician, and injured worker, they can improve communication and align objectives to mitigate misuse or abuse situations throughout the life of a claim.
Medication monitoring can achieve better outcomes
The vast majority of injured workers use medications as directed. Unfortunately, situations of misuse and abuse are far too common. Studies show a growing trend of discrepancies between the medication prescription and actual medication-regimen adherence when it comes to claimants on opioid therapy (Health Trends: Prescription Drug Monitoring Report, 2012). In response, payers, working alongside with their PBM and other stakeholders, are deploying medication monitoring tools with greater frequency to verify the injured worker is appropriately using their medications, particularly opioid analgesics. The good news is these efforts are working. Forty-five percent of patients with previously demonstrated aberrant drug-related behaviors were able to adhere to their medication regimens after management with drug testing or in combination with signed treatment agreements and multispecialty care (Laffer Associates and Millennium Research Institute, October 2011).
In our own studies, we have similarly found that clinical interventions performed in conjunction with medication monitoring tools such as UDT reduces utilization of high-risk medications in injured workers on chronic opioid therapy. Results showed there was a decrease in all measures of utilization, driven primarily by opioids (32% decrease) and benzodiazepines (51% decrease), as well as a 26% reduction in total utilization of all medications, regardless of drug class. This is proof positive that medication monitoring can be useful in achieving better outcomes.