Mollie Pawlosky | Dickinson Law | November 1, 2018
In a case of first impression, Walnut Creek Townhome Association v. Depositors Insurance Company, the Iowa Supreme Court has held that insurance appraisers may determine the cause of loss in addition to the amount of damage.
Walnut Creek Townhome Association submitted a claim to Depositors Insurance Company for hail damage to the Association’s roofs. Depositors felt that damage had been caused not by hail, but rather by defective shingles. As part of the dispute, Walnut Creek exercised its right to an appraisal under the insurance policy. Each party picked an appraiser, and an umpire was picked. The three individuals then examined the roofs and prepared a report.
Two of the three on the panel opined that damage in the amount of approximately $1.4 million resulted from hail damage. After a bench trial, the court found in favor of Depositors. The trial court held that Walnut Creek had not proved that the storm was the only cause for damage. The trial court also ruled that the appraisal award was not binding on the parties.
The Iowa Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the trial court was bound by the appraisal. The Iowa Supreme Court granted further review, for the first time addressing whether parties are bound not only by appraisers’ decisions of valuation, but also by the appraisers’ causation decision.
The Court recognized the historical importance of insurance appraisal provisions, which can resolve insurance disputes without a formal lawsuit. Since the 1940s, the Iowa Code has contained an approved appraisal provision for property insurance policies. Iowa’s provision is similar to provisions adopted by 45 other states. Courts are only allowed to set aside appraisal awards if the record demonstrates fraud, mistake, or misfeasance of the appraiser or umpire. Depositors did not raise such arguments, so the appraisal award was binding. The question was: Was the appraisal binding as to the amount of damage alone, or was the appraisal also binding as to what caused the damage?
Courts across the country are divided as to whether appraisers determine the cause-in-fact of damage. The Iowa Supreme Court ultimately found that the “better-reasoned cases” hold that appraisers necessarily recognize causation when determining the amount of loss. For example, if an appraiser is determining the amount of “storm damage,” the appraiser is not just assessing damage, but the appraiser is also stating that the damage is from a storm.
Without fraud, mistake or misfeasance, the district court was not free to make its own factual determination as to whether there was hail damage, even if the court disagreed. The appraisers’ findings remained subject to coverage exclusions and limitations, which the trial court decides. Thus, the Court remanded the case, with directions for the trial court to accept the appraisal award and then determine if any coverage defenses applied.