Lawrence Moon | Property Insurance Coverage Law Blog | November 17, 2017
In a prior blog, I discussed the California Supreme Court’s decision in Fluor Corporation v. Superior Court,1 regarding the post-loss assignment of insurance benefits. In Fluor, the California Supreme Court held that section 520 of California’s Insurance Code prohibits insurance companies from refusing to honor post-loss assignments of benefits, regardless of whether the assigned benefits (a) had accrued at the time of the assignment (i.e., constituted “Noncontingent Benefits”), or (b) had not yet accrued but could accrue if additional events occurred or additional conditions satisfied (i.e., constituted “Contingent Benefits”).
Within days of the California Supreme Court’s decision in Fluor, an affiliate of Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company, which was effectively the “losing” party in Fluor, relied on the decision in Fluor to obtain a victory in a (federal) District Court case that also concerned a post-loss assignment of rights pertaining to an insurance policy. In Hartford Casualty Insurance Company v. Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company,2 Hartford Casualty sued Fireman’s Fund on its own behalf and as the assignee of three of Fireman’s policyholders. Hartford had issued a business liability policy to one of the Fireman’s policyholders, Herndon Partners. Herndon was owned by another of Fireman’s policyholders, Paul Owhadi. For its part, Fireman’s had issued (1) a homeowner’s policy to Mr. Owhadi, under which Herndon Partners was named as an additional insured, and (2) an excess liability policy to Mr. Owhadi and the third policyholder, Susan Owhadi.
Fireman’s excess policy contained exclusions for business activity, business property, and workers compensation. The Fireman’s Fund policies also contained a clause which stated, “Assignment of this policy or a claim will not be valid unless we give our written consent.”3
All of the policies covered, or seemed to cover, the property on which a worker was electrocuted and died. At the time of the death, the property was owned solely by Herndon Partners. Hartford defended Herndon in the wrongful death lawsuit that followed but Fireman’s Fund denied coverage because Herndon was not a named insured under either of its policies. Fireman’s also raised the business exclusions in its excess policy as grounds for denying coverage under that policy.
After an $8.8 million judgment was entered against Herndon, all three of the policyholders assigned to Hartford, “claims against Fireman’s Fund related to the wrongful death lawsuit and the two Fireman’s Fund policies.”4 Hartford then filed a complaint against Fireman’s Fund for indemnity, contribution, professional negligence, declaratory judgment, and reformation of the Fireman’s Fund policies. Specifically, Hartford alleged that Fireman’s Fund knew that the property was owned by Herndon and that it was a rental property. Therefore, according to Hartford, Fireman’s policies should be “reformed” to delete the business exclusions and name Herndon as an insured.
Fireman’s moved to dismiss the reformation claim alleging that Hartford lacked standing to bring that claim because (1) Fireman’s policies expressly prohibited the assignment of claims without its consent, and (2) the California Supreme Court’s decision in Fluor did not apply to the reformation claim because a reformation claim does not seek “defense or indemnification coverage.”5
The District Court rejected Fireman’s arguments, holding that under section 520 of California’s Insurance Code and the California Supreme Court’s decision in Fluor, the clause in Fireman’s policies that prohibited assignments was void regarding post-loss assignments.6 The District Court also held that section 520 “applies broadly” and protected Hartford’s cause of action for reformation.7, 8
The decision in Hartford is significant to the degree it suggests that the courts in California may interpret and apply section 520 broadly to post-loss assignments that pertain to rights or benefits under an insurance policy, including legal rights and causes of action not set forth in the policy. While the decision in Hartford pertained specifically to liability policies, neither the language of section 520 nor any court decisions I have found appear to limit the statute’s application to liability policies.
Determining the validity of an assignment pertaining to an insurance claim or policy always begins with an analysis of the terms of both the policy and the assignment. Before making any major decisions concerning an assignment, policyholders should seek independent professional advice and, when applicable, obtain multiple bids or offers from prospective assignees or purchasers of the assigned rights.
1 Fluor Corp. v. Superior Court, 61 Cal.4th 1175, 354 P.3d 302 (Cal. 2015).
2 Hartford Cas. Ins. Co. v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 2015 WL 5168643 (N.D. Calif. Sept. 3, 2015).
3 Id., fn. 3 (emphasis added).
4 The decision in Hartford does not specify what claims were assigned or how they were described in the assignment.
5 According to the opinion in Hartford, the quoted language was drawn from the Fluor decision by Fireman’s Fund. Partly because that phrase is found in multiple locations in the Fluor decision, it is not clear which instance of the phrase Fireman’s Fund was referring to. However, I believe the quotation is from the Supreme Court’s closing paragraph in Fluor: “For the reasons set forth, Insurance Code 520 applies to third party liability insurance. Under that provision, after personal injury (or property damage) resulting in loss occurs within the time limits of the policy, an insurer is precluded from refusing to honor an insured’s assignment of the right to invoke defense or indemnification coverage regarding that loss. This result obtains even without consent by the insurer — and even though the dollar amount of the loss remains unknown or undetermined until established later by a judgment or approved settlement.” [Emphasis added.]
6 Id., *4 (“Thus, under Insurance Code § 520, the clause prohibiting the assignment of claims against Fireman’s Fund is void”).
7 Id. (“Nothing in the text of Insurance Code § 520 limits its applicability to only claims involving ‘defense or indemnification.’”).
8 Section 520 states, in its entirety, “An agreement not to transfer the claim of the insured against the insurer after a loss has happened, is void if made before the loss.”