Court rules on corporate insurance policy issues

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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One of the first things you'll notice about an Indiana Court of Appeals decision issued today is the number of attorneys and parties on the case.

The first four pages of the 29-page ruling in Travelers Casualty and Surety Company, et al. v. U.S. Filter Corp., list the parties and respective attorneys. Those include 13 appellant insurance companies and organizations, two appellees-plaintiffs, and three amici curiae parties from Indianapolis; Washington, D.C.; New York, Chicago; and parts of Michigan.

Issues addressed in this case are listed in the opinion as: 1. Whether the trial court erred in concluding that U.S. Filter acquired the rights to and is entitled to seek insurance coverage under Insurers' policies when the relevant corporate transactions did not assign rights under those policies; 2. Whether the trial court erred in holding that U.S. Filter is not, as a matter of law, precluded from seeking coverage under Insurers' policies notwithstanding U.S. Filter's noncompliance with the "consent-to-assignment" provision; and 3. Whether the trial court erred in granting U.S. Filter rights under Insurers' policies, but summarily denying Waste Management those same rights where no party requested such relief and no supportive evidence was designated.

Today's decision affirms and vacates the decision in part, remanding back to the trial court level.

"In a nutshell, this is a big win for Indiana policyholders," said Indianapolis attorney Brent Huber with Ice Miller, an attorney representing appellee Waste Management Holdings. "This often arises when one company buys another and tries to assign insurance to the buyer. You can still have coverage and the buying and selling of companies as corporate America often does, doesn't end liability coverage."

Writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, Judge James Kirsch delves into a case from Marion Superior Court that involves product liability insurance policies, corporate transactions going back to the 1930s, contract-based claims involving chose in action, and ultimately related public policy and Indiana case law going back to the late 1800s.

At the ground level, this dispute arises from U.S. Filter and Waste Management's efforts to assert rights under insurance policies issued to predecessor or affiliate companies, specifically relating to coverage for thousands of underlying bodily injury claims caused by exposure to silica working in the vicinity of a metal-cleaning air blast machine. Known as the "Wheelabrator," it produced silica dust that can cause a potentially deadly occupational lung disease if inhaled over time.

According to the appellate court, the significance of this litigation goes back to 1932 when the plaintiffs' predecessors first made the product now under ownership of U.S. Filter since 1996. Plaintiffs filed a breach of action complaint in 2004 for declaratory judgment, asserting they had rights under a policy issued under Travelers Casualty and Surety Company and a number of other insurance companies.

"This court has never addressed the question of when a chose in action becomes an enforceable right," Judge Kirsch wrote, dismissing a California Supreme Court ruling and ultimately relying on a U.S. Supreme Court cases to reach its decision. "Adopting the same principle, we hold that a chose in action arises under an occurrence-based insurance policy at the time of the covered loss - a conclusion that we reached many years ago."

With that, Judge Kirsch cited a century-old Indiana ruling (New v. German Ins. Co. of Freeport, 5 Ind. App. 82, 85,31, N.E. 475, 476 (Ind. Ct. App. 1892)) that held after a loss has occurred, a policy becomes a chose in action assignable like any other.

On the consent to transfer issue, the court wrote that the plaintiffs' predecessors and affiliates had compensated the insurers for insuring the risk associated with the Wheelabrator blast operation.

"Thus, to now hold the Insurers responsible for the liability arising under that risk only imposes on the Insurers the liability that they agreed to insure and for which they were already compensated," the opinion states. "Indeed, any contrary holding would provide an unfair windfall for Insurers."

Judge Kirsch wrote that the court was also persuaded by the considerations offered by amicus curiae parties that "the smooth flow of assets from one entity to another by way of merger or acquisition is integral to the functioning of a modern free market economy."

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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.