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.”
A Renaissance In U.S. Energy
America’s energy resurgence is one of the biggest economic game-changers in modern global history. Current technologies are extracting more oil and gas from shale, oil sands and beneath the ocean floor.
Domestic manufacturers once clamoring for more affordable fuels now have them. Breaking from its past role as a hungry energy importer, the U.S. is moving toward potentially becoming a major energy exporter.
“As the surge in domestic energy production becomes a game-changer, it’s time to change the game when it comes to both midstream and downstream energy risk management and risk transfer,” said Rob Rokicki, a New York-based senior vice president with Liberty International Underwriters (LIU) with 25 years of experience underwriting energy property risks around the globe.
Given the domino effect, whereby critical issues impact each other, today’s businesses and insurers can no longer look at challenges in isolation one issue at a time. A holistic, collaborative and integrated approach to minimizing risk and improving outcomes is called for instead.
Aging Infrastructure, Aging Personnel
The irony of the domestic energy surge is that just as the industry is poised to capitalize on the bonanza, its infrastructure is in serious need of improvement. Ten years ago, the domestic refining industry was declining, with much of the industry moving overseas. That decline was exacerbated by the Great Recession, meaning even less investment went into the domestic energy infrastructure, which is now facing a sudden upsurge in the volume of gas and oil it’s being called on to handle and process.
“We are in a renaissance for energy’s midstream and downstream business leading us to a critical point that no one predicted,” Rokicki said. “Plants that were once stranded assets have become diamonds based on their location. Plus, there was not a lot of new talent coming into the industry during that fallow period.”
In fact, according to a 2014 Manpower Inc. study, an aging workforce along with a lack of new talent and skills coming in is one of the largest threats facing the energy sector today. Other estimates show that during the next decade, approximately 50 percent of those working in the energy industry will be retiring. “So risk managers can now add concerns about an aging workforce to concerns about the aging infrastructure,” he said.
Increasing Frequency of Severity
Current financial factors have also contributed to a marked increase in frequency of severity losses in both the midstream and downstream energy sector. The costs associated with upgrades, debottlenecking and replacement of equipment, have increased significantly,” Rokicki said. For example, a small loss 10 years ago in the $1 million to $5 million ranges, is now increasing rapidly and could readily develop into a $20 million to $30 million loss.
Man-made disasters, such as fires and explosions that are linked to aging infrastructure and the decrease in experienced staff due to the aging workforce, play a big part. The location of energy midstream and downstream facilities has added to the underwriting risk.
“When you look at energy plants, they tend to be located around rivers, near ports, or near a harbor. These assets are susceptible to flood and storm surge exposure from a natural catastrophe standpoint. We are seeing greater concentrations of assets located in areas that are highly exposed to natural catastrophe perils,” Rokicki explained.
“A hurricane thirty years ago would affect fewer installations then a storm does today. This increases aggregation and the magnitude for potential loss.”
On its own, the domestic energy bonanza presents complex risk management challenges.
However, gradual changes to insurance coverage for both midstream and downstream energy have complicated the situation further. Broadening coverage over the decades by downstream energy carriers has led to greater uncertainty in adjusting claims.
A combination of the downturn in domestic energy production, the recession and soft insurance market cycles meant greatly increased competition from carriers and resulted in the writing of untested policy language.
In effect, the industry went from an environment of tested policy language and structure to vague and ambiguous policy language.
Keep in mind that no one carrier has the capacity to underwrite a $3 billion oil refinery. Each insurance program has many carriers that subscribe and share the risk, with each carrier potentially participating on differential terms.
“Achieving clarity in the policy language is getting very complicated and potentially detrimental,” Rokicki said.
Back to Basics
Has the time come for a reset?
Rokicki proposes getting back to basics with both midstream and downstream energy risk management and risk transfer.
He recommends that the insured, the broker, and the carrier’s underwriter, engineer and claims executive sit down and make sure they are all on the same page about coverage terms and conditions.
It’s something the industry used to do and got away from, but needs to get back to.
“Having a claims person involved with policy wording before a loss is of the utmost importance,” Rokicki said, “because that claims executive can best explain to the insured what they can expect from policy coverage prior to any loss, eliminating the frustration of interpreting today’s policy wording.”
As well, having an engineer and underwriter working on the team with dual accountability and responsibility can be invaluable, often leading to innovative coverage solutions for clients as a result of close collaboration.
According to Rokicki, the best time to have this collaborative discussion is at the mid-point in a policy year. For a property policy that runs from July 1 through June 30, for example, the meeting should happen in December or January. If underwriters try to discuss policy-wording concerns during the renewal period on their own, the process tends to get overshadowed by the negotiations centered around premiums.
After a loss occurs is not the best time to find out everyone was thinking differently about the coverage,” he said.
Changes in both the energy and insurance markets require a new approach to minimizing risk. A more holistic, less siloed approach is called for in today’s climate. Carriers need to conduct more complex analysis across multiple measures and have in-depth conversations with brokers and insureds to create a better understanding and collectively develop the best solutions. LIU’s integrated business approach utilizing underwriters, engineers and claims executives provides a solid platform for realizing success in this new and ever-changing energy environment.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty International Underwriters. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.