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COA rules in negligent application process case

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Addressing an issue today for the first time in state courts, the Indiana Court of Appeals had to determine whether a couple could sue their insurance broker for alleged negligence during the application process.

State courts have ruled on actions by an insured against an insurance company seeking recovery under a policy in cases such as Metropolitan Life v. Alterovitz, 214 Ind. 186, 196 14 N.E.2d 570, 574 (1938), but not in a case in which a person claims the insurance broker was negligent while filing out the application for insurance, leaving the person without any homeowner's insurance or specific coverage.

In Terence E. Brennan Jr. a/k/a Terry Brennan and Burt Insurance Co. v. Patricia and Harry Hall, No. 64A03-0811-CV-548, Terry Brennan and Burt Insurance Co. appealed the jury verdict finding them liable for negligently failing to procure insurance for the Halls.

Patricia Hall visited Brennan at his office and asked if he could get her homeowners insurance that specifically covered her dogs, including a Doberman pinscher; earthquakes; and a wood-burning stove. The insurance company Brennan selected for Hall doesn't provide insurance for Doberman pinschers; however, on the application, Brennan checked the "no" box to a question asking if the homeowner has any animals or exotic pets. Patricia, feeling rushed, signed the application without closely looking it over.

The Halls discovered they didn't have coverage for the dogs after their niece was bitten and they filed a claim with the insurance company, which was denied because the application didn't note they had a Doberman pinscher.

The Halls filed their own suit against Brennan and Burt Insurance, alleging negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and constructive fraud by failing to acquire adequate insurance for the couple. The jury found Brennan and the company liable based on negligent failure to procure a policy. No damages were assessed because of a pending lawsuit between the Halls and the niece.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals addressed a similar issue in Roe v. Sewell, 128 F.3d 1098 (7th Cir. 1997), in which it limited the ruling in Alterovitz to cases by an insurance applicant directly against an insurance company. Alterovitz doesn't prohibit suits by an insurance applicant against an agent who may have been negligent in the application process, wrote Judge Michael Barnes.

"We hold that if an agent is negligent in assisting a client complete an insurance application, and such negligence leads to a basis for the insurance company to deny coverage to the applicant and/or revoke the policy, the applicant may seek damages from the agent, even if the applicant signed or ratified the application after having a chance to review it," he wrote.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict.

The Court of Appeals did mention that Patricia may share some of the blame for the inaccurate application and as under Roe, it may be appropriate to assess her fault in accordance with the Comparative Fault Act. Brennan and Burt Insurance failed to make such an argument before the court, wrote Judge Barnes.

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  1. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  2. If the end result is to simply record the spoke word, then perhaps some day digital recording may eventually be the status quo. However, it is a shallow view to believe the professional court reporter's function is to simply report the spoken word and nothing else. There are many aspects to being a professional court reporter, and many aspects involved in producing a professional and accurate transcript. A properly trained professional steno court reporter has achieved a skill set in a field where the average dropout rate in court reporting schools across the nation is 80% due to the difficulty of mastering the necessary skills. To name just a few "extras" that a court reporter with proper training brings into a courtroom or a deposition suite; an understanding of legal procedure, technology specific to the legal profession, and an understanding of what is being said by the attorneys and litigants (which makes a huge difference in the quality of the transcript). As to contracting, or anti-contracting the argument is simple. The court reporter as governed by our ethical standards is to be the independent, unbiased individual in a deposition or courtroom setting. When one has entered into a contract with any party, insurance carrier, etc., then that reporter is no longer unbiased. I have been a court reporter for over 30 years and I echo Mr. Richardson's remarks that I too am here to serve.

  3. A competitive bid process is ethical and appropriate especially when dealing with government agencies and large corporations, but an ethical line is crossed when court reporters in Pittsburgh start charging exorbitant fees on opposing counsel. This fee shifting isn't just financially biased, it undermines the entire justice system, giving advantages to those that can afford litigation the most. It makes no sense.

  4. "a ttention to detail is an asset for all lawyers." Well played, Indiana Lawyer. Well played.

  5. I have a appeals hearing for the renewal of my LPN licenses and I need an attorney, the ones I have spoke to so far want the money up front and I cant afford that. I was wondering if you could help me find one that takes payments or even a pro bono one. I live in Indiana just north of Indianapolis.

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