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Insurer's policy breach a case of first impression

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In a case of first impression for state courts, the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict against an insurance company in a breach of contract case, ruling the insured's failure to repair his building following a fire was the fault of the insurance company.

In Rockford Mutual Insurance Co. v. Terrey E. Pirtle, No. 77A01-0802-CV-94, a dispute arose over Terrey Pirtle's failure to repair or replace a historic building he owned in Terre Haute. He rented it out while restoring it and insured the building through Rockford Mutual. It was damaged in an accidental fire in November 2000.

Pirtle rejected a claim to settle for $80,000 because it wasn't enough to satisfy his mortgage or repair the building; his policy limit under Coverage A was $193,000. Rockford told Pirtle he would only be entitled to payment under the replacement cost coverage once repairs or replacement of the building had been completed. It also offered him nearly $70,000 with the rest of the $193,000 to be paid when the property was repaired.

Pirtle filed suit for breach of contract; Rockford paid him more than $86,000 for the building's actual cash value and moved for summary judgment alleging that was all he was entitled to because the building hadn't been repaired or replaced. In October 2007, a jury found Rockford breached the contract and awarded Pirtle $124,149.55 under the insurance policy and $406,136.58 in consequential damages.

On appeal, Rockford argued the terms of the policy are clear and unambiguous that all Pirtle was entitled to receive from the insurer was the $86,000 because he didn't follow the terms of the policy. But Pirtle was in a no-win situation, wrote Judge Kirsch, and had little choice but to use the funds from Rockford to satisfy the mortgage at a loss to the mortgage holder, which left nothing to start the repairs.

Indiana courts have yet to address the issue of whether an insured could be excused from performance of a condition precedent contained in a fire insurance policy. Using cases from the Court of Appeals of Michigan and the District Court in the Southern District of New York, the appellate court ruled Pirtle was excused from performing the condition precedent because Rockford's actions hindered his performance.

"We acknowledge that other courts, including our own Seventh Circuit, have held that the contract must be strictly construed to require the completion of the repair or replacement before liability under the replacement cost endorsement attaches," wrote Judge Kirsch. "... However, we are convinced that equitable principles win the day in this situation; otherwise, the repair or replacement endorsement paid for by Pirtle would be rendered illusory."

The Court of Appeals also rejected Rockford's argument that its liability should be capped at the policy limits, based on Indiana Insurance Co. v. Plummer, 590 N.E.2d 1085 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992). Rockford's motive for delayed payment is irrelevant, so its good faith argument failed, wrote Judge Kirsch. In addition, the damages awarded to Pirtle flow directly from and are proximately caused by Rockford's failure to pay. The judges also ruled the award was within the scope of the evidence.

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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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