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.”
The Re-Invention of American Healthcare
Consolidation among healthcare providers continues at a torrid pace.
A multitude of factors are driving this consolidation, including the Affordable Care Act compliance, growing costs and the ever-greater complexity of health insurance reimbursements. After several years of purchasing individual practices and regional hospital systems, the emergence of the mega-hospital system is now clear.
“Every month, one of our clients is either being bought or buying someone — and the M&A activity shows no signs of slowing down,” said Brenda Osborne, executive vice president at Lexington Insurance Co.
This dramatic change in the landscape of healthcare providers is soon to be matched by equally significant changes in patient behavior. Motivated by growing out-of-pocket costs and empowered with new sources of information, the emergence of a “healthcare consumer” is on the horizon.
Price, service, reputation and, ultimately, value are soon to be important factors for patients making healthcare decisions.
Such significant changes bring with them new and challenging risks.
Although physicians traditionally started their own practices or joined medical groups, the current climate is quite the opposite. Doctors are now seeking out employment by health systems. Wages are guaranteed, hours are more stable, vacations are easier to take, and the burdens of running a business are gone.
“It’s a lot more of a desirable lifestyle, particularly for the younger generation,” said Osborne.
Brenda Osborne discusses the changing healthcare environment and the risks and opportunities to come.
Given the strategic importance of successfully integrating acquired practices into a larger healthcare system, hospitals are rightfully focused on how best to keep doctors happy, motivated and focused on patient safety.
A key issue that many hospitals struggle with is how to provide effective liability insurance for their doctors. Physicians who previously owned their practice are accustomed to a certain type of coverage and they expect that coverage to continue.
Even when operators find comparable liability insurance solutions for their doctors, getting buy-in from their staff is often an additional hurdle to overcome.
“Physicians listen to two things — physician leaders and data,” said Osborne. “That’s why Lexington provides assessments that utilize deep data analysis, combined with providing insights from leading doctors to help explain trends and best practices.
“In addition, utilizing benchmarks against peers helps to identify gaps in best practices. It’s a very powerful approach that speaks to doctors in a way that will help them improve their risk.”
Focusing on the “continuum of care”
There’s been a fundamental shift in how healthcare providers care for patients: Treatment is becoming more focused on a patient’s overall health status and related needs.
A cancer patient, for example, should have doctors in a number of specialties communicating and working together toward a positive patient outcome. But that means a change in thinking: Physicians need to work collaboratively with one another — not easy for individuals or groups that are used to being independent. Healthcare is a team sport.
“If there isn’t strong communication, strong leadership, and the recognition of proper treatment procedures between physicians, healthcare providers can increase the risk of error,” said Osborne. “The provider has got to treat the whole patient rather than each individual condition.”
That coordination must extend from inpatient to outpatient, especially since the ACA has led to a rapid increase in patients being treated at outpatient clinics, or via home health or telehealth to reduce the cost of inpatient care
“Home health is going be a growing area in the future,” Osborne continued. “Telehealth will become an effective and efficient way of managing and treating patients in their home. A patient might have a nurse come in and help the healthcare provider communicate with a physician through an iPad or computer. The nurse can also convey assessment findings to the physician.”
Metrics matter more than ever
Patients have not always thought of themselves as healthcare consumers, but that’s changing dramatically as they pay more out of pocket for their own healthcare. At the same time, there’s an increase in metrics and data available to the public — and healthcare consumers are drawing upon those metrics more and more when making choices that affect their health.
“Consumers are going to start measuring physicians against physicians, healthcare systems against healthcare systems. That competition will force everyone to improve the quality of care.”
– Brenda Osborne, Executive Vice President, Lexington Insurance
Think about all the research a consumer does before buying a car. Which dealership has the best price? Who provides the best service? Who’s offering the best financing deal?
“Do patients do that with physicians? No,” said Osborne. “Patients choose physicians through referrals from friends or health plans with minimal information. Patients may be putting their lives in the physicians’ hands and not know their track record.
That’s all going to change as patients’ use of data becomes more widespread. There are many web based resources to find information on physicians.
“Consumers are going to start measuring physicians against physicians, healthcare systems against healthcare systems,” said Osborne. “That competition will force everyone to improve the quality of care.”
Effective solutions are driven by expertise and vision
The rapidly evolving healthcare space requires all healthcare providers to find ways to cut costs and focus on patient safety. Lexington Insurance, long known as the leading innovative and nimble specialty insurer, is at the forefront in providing clients cutting-edge tools to help reduce costs and healthcare exposures.
These tools include:
- Office Practice Risk Assessment: To support clients as they acquire physician practices, Lexington developed an office practice assessment tool which provides a broad, comprehensive evaluation of operational practices that may impact risk. The resulting report, complete with charts, graphs and insights, includes recommendations that can help physicians reduce risk related to such issues as telephone triage, lab results follow-up and medication management. .
- Best Practice Assessments: High risk clinical areas such as emergency departments (ED) and obstetrics (OB) can benefit significantly from external, objective, evidence-based assessments to identify gaps and assure compliance with best practices. In addition to ED and OB, Lexington can provide a BPA for peri-operative care, prevention of healthcare-acquired infections, and nursing homes. All assessments result in a comprehensive report with recommendations for improvement and resources along with consultative assistance and support. .
- Continuing Education: In an effort to improve knowledge, decrease potential risk and support healthcare providers in the use the most current tools and techniques, Lexington provides Continuing Medical Education credits at no cost to hospitals or their physicians.
- Targeting the Healthcare Consumer: With Medicare reimbursement impacted by patient-satisfaction surveys, assuring a positive patient experience is more critical than ever. Lexington helps hospitals understand and improve the patient experience so they can continue to earn the trust of healthcare consumers while preserving their good reputation. .
To learn more about Lexington Insurance’s scope and depth of the patient safety consulting products and services healthcare solutions, interested brokers may visit their website.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Lexington Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.