Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Court: Even upon liability for mere negligence, insurer may refuse to cover statutory attorney-fee award

Gerd Altmann licensed by Pixabay
An insurer is not obliged to reimburse an insured for attorney fees awarded in a quasi-tort action under Massachusetts statute, the commonwealth high court held today.

The insured was a cleaning business operating under the "Servpro" banner. In the dispute underlying the instant case, the insured cleaned up a sewage spill and was held liable to a client who suffered respiratory injury from exposure to disinfectant chemicals.

The personal-injury complainant sued under the unusually broad unfair commercial practices statute, Massachusetts chapter 93A. Chapter 93A affords prevailing parties attorney fees, as well as double or treble damages for complainants able to prove "willful or knowing" violation.

Those powerful incentives tend to cause plaintiffs to abandon common law tort claims when the 93A claim is viable. So here, the plaintiff declined to prosecute her common law negligence claim and was awarded attorney fees on a prevailing 93A theory, an implied warranty of merchantability.

Subsequently, Vermont Mutual Insurance Co. declined to pay the full sum of the award, asserting that the policy did not cover the attorney-fee award.

The Supreme Judicial Court agreed, finding the plain meaning of the insurance contract controlling. The policy covered liability for "bodily injury" and "costs," the court acknowledged. But attorney fees are not "costs 'taxed' against the insured in the suit," the court held; rather, "costs" refers to "the narrower, technical meaning of court-related or nominal costs recoverable as a matter of course to prevailing parties."

The outcome is potentially devastating to small businesses that believe themselves to be insured against negligence liability. An attorney-fee award is enough to put a small business into bankruptcy, yet personal-injury liability insurance typically excludes coverage for fees. 

That exclusion arises, I posit, upon the logic that fees typically are awarded in the states, if at all under "the American rule," only in cases of intentional or reckless wrongdoing, for which insurers also exclude liability. Chapter 93A makes fees much more readily accessible to prevailing plaintiffs and thereby burdens business with an unanticipated transaction cost, while affording multi-state insurers with a windfall.

Notwithstanding my principled objection to deviations from the American rule as an incoherent remedy to our problem of runaway transaction costs, I see no meaningful distinction between a personal injury award and an accompanying fee award when both are predicated on conduct indistinguishable from common law negligence. Vermont Mutual was let off the hook on a technicality, to my mind, and insureds should be entitled to the coverage they reasonably believe they bargained for. 

At minimum, going forward, the commonwealth insurance regulator should compel clear articulation of the risk to insureds of such a coverage limitation specially under chapter 93A. I won't hold my breath.

The case is Vermont Mutual Insurance Co. v. Poirier (Mass. July 6, 2022). Justice Scott L. Kafker wrote the unanimous opinion.

No comments:

Post a Comment