ILNews

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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  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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