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7th Circuit: Insurer can challenge its duty to defend

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has lifted a stay imposed by the District Court in Hammond on an insurer’s declaratory judgment action regarding coverage of a physician who skipped town instead of facing criminal charges and civil suits.

The Circuit Court Monday addressed the case Medical Assurance Co., Inc. v. Amy Hellman, et al., No. 08-2887. The U.S. District Court, Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, granted a stay request by the commissioner of the Indiana Department of Insurance, administrator of the Indiana Patient’s Compensation Fund, which has an interest in the case.

While on vacation in Greece in 2004, Dr. Mark Weinberger, a Merrillville ear, nose, and throat doctor, “went for a run” and never returned. He was facing $5.7 million in creditor claims and 22 criminal counts of billing fraud once he returned to the United States. The U.S. government issued an international arrest warrant for Weinberger, among other things to locate him. He was arrested in Italy in December 2009 and has been extradited to the U.S.

While only a few medical malpractice cases had been filed before Weinberger’s disappearance, more than 350 medical malpractice claims have been filed since then and are proceeding through Indiana’s medical malpractice process.

Weinberger’s medical malpractice insurance carrier, Medical Assurance Company Inc., has been conducting his defense, but his disappearance prompted this suit. In the contract between the doctor and insurer there was a typical cooperation clause that requires Weinberger to participate in his defense. Because the doctor was not, Medical Assurance brought an action asking the court to declare that Weinberger breached his responsibilities under the contract and that Medical Assurance no longer has a duty to defend or indemnify him.

The District Court was concerned that such an action would “severely” intrude on state medical malpractice actions. So as not to interfere with the state cases, the District Court issued the stay of the federal proceedings. The state cases are proceeding under the familiar framework for medical-malpractice claims.

In Indiana, an insurer must show that the breach of duty resulted in actual prejudice in order to prevail. Emplrs. Mut. Cas. Co. v.Skoutaris, 453 F.3d 915, 924 (7th Cir. 2006); Ky. Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Empire Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 919 N.E.2d 565, 585-87 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010).

“The insured’s absence alone is not enough to establish prejudice in this state; to prove actual prejudice, the insurer must show somehow that the outcome of the underlying case would have been altered by the insured’s cooperation. See Cincinnati Ins. Co. v. Irvin, 19 F. Supp. 2d 906, 916 (S.D. Ind. 1998),” the court wrote.

Medical Assurance noted that the scope of Weinberger’s insurance coverage is not at issue in the state court actions. The insurer contended it is prepared, if it gets its day in the District Court, to meet its burden of showing actual prejudice from the doctor’s actions. Without such, the company noted it will be left without a practical remedy.

The Circuit Court noted the stay was not clear as to whether the District Court meant to allow the insurer to proceed after a small number of test cases or if it meant that Medical Assurance couldn’t proceed in its federal litigation until every state case was disposed.

The Circuit Court agreed with the insurer that it should have been allowed to resolve the merits of the declaratory judgment action focusing on Medical Assurance’s duty-to-defend claim.

“And on remand, a summary judgment motion could test Medical Assurance’s legal theories, based on all the evidence that has been collected thus far. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56. Indeed, summary judgment is a good tool to examine not only whether Medical Assurance can succeed as a matter of law but also whether this case is a suitable candidate for declaratory relief,” wrote Judge Diane Wood.


 

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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