In a recent decision, the Rhode Island Superior Court ruled that claims brought against a dissolved entity’s insurers are barred pursuant to R.I. General Laws § 27-7-2.  This statute bars direct actions against insurers of alleged tortfeasors absent very limited exceptions.

In Shirley D’Amico, et al. v. A.O. Smith Corp., et al. (C.A. PC12-0403), the Rhode Island Superior Court examined whether one of those exceptions to R.I. General Laws § 27-7-2, which allows direct actions against the insurers of a bankrupt entity, similarly permits a direct action against the insurers of a dissolved entity.  The underlying facts of the case were straightforward.  Plaintiff alleged that her husband, Frank D’Amico, died from malignant mesothelioma proximately caused by occupational exposure to asbestos.  This exposure, according to Plaintiff, took place during Mr. D’Amico’s service in the United States Navy and his subsequent employment at various golf courses.  Plaintiff filed the original complaint on January 25, 2012.  After multiple amendments, Plaintiff filed a fifth amended complaint on June 11, 2015, to include Grover S. Wormer Company (“Wormer”) as a defendant.  In accordance with Michigan Corporate Code, [1]Wormer was dissolved as of January 10, 2008.  As such, on February 28, 2018, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against Wormer, finding they were barred by the laws of State of Michigan.


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In a recent decision, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that when an arbitration award exceeds the insurance policy limits, the Superior Court cannot consider the policy limits, or the insurance policy itself, in a motion to modify the award, unless the insurance company asserted a policy limit defense at the arbitration and provided a copy of the policy to the arbitrator.

In Lemerise v. Commerce Ins. Co., the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that trial courts may not supplement the review of a motion to modify an arbitration award pursuant to R.I. General Laws Section 10-3-14 with testimony, other evidence, and even arguments, if those items were not raised during the arbitration.  137 A.3d 692 (R.I. 2016).  This new precedent provides instructions to the trial court when reviewing motions to modify arbitration awards.  Courts are now forbidden to review evidence and arguments that were not presented or raised during the arbitration proceedings, and have been instructed to confirm arbitration awards unless the narrow exceptions outlined in Section 10-3-14 apply.

 

The underlying matter in Lemerise involved a dispute between the plaintiff, Joseph Lemerise, and the defendant, the Commerce Insurance Company.  In August 2011, Mr. Lemerise was struck by an uninsured motorist while crossing a street in Newport, Rhode Island.  Lemerise, 137 A.3d at 697.  Following the accident, Mr. Lemerise filed a claim for coverage under his automobile insurance policy through Commerce.  Id.  The parties unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate appropriate compensation for Mr. Lemerise’s injuries and a suit was subsequently filed in the Newport County Superior Court.  Id.  After filing the suit, the parties agreed to participate in arbitration pursuant to the terms of Mr. Lemerise’s uninsured motorist policy.  Id. at 705.  The arbitrator sought to determine the extent of Mr. Lemerise’s injuries and award sufficient compensation.  Id. at 698.  The arbitrator assessed Mr. Lemerise’s injuries at $150,000 and added prejudgment interest of $47,550, which brought the total award to $197,550.  Id. This total was well above the policy limit of $100,000.  Id.

At the conclusion of the arbitration, Mr. Lemerise moved in the superior court to confirm the arbitration award, and Commerce filed a motion seeking modification.  Id. at 698.  While reviewing the motions, the superior court supplemented its review of the issues at hand with a copy of Mr. Lemerise’s insurance policy, as well as testimony from the arbitrator.  Id.  The superior court justice granted Commerce’s motion to modify the award to conform with the insurance policy limit of $100,000.  Id. at 699.  The justice stated that he would not “allow [Mr. Lemerise] to take advantage of some technicality to get more than he bargained for in this case.”  Id.  Mr. Lemerise appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, seeking a reversal of the superior court’s holding and a confirmation of the initial arbitration award.  Id.

The sole issue presented before the Supreme Court was whether the trial justice erred in granting the motion to modify the award, when, after supplementing the
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blood-pressure-1573037_1920No, this is not déjà vu. On June 8, 2017, the Supreme Court of Florida struck down another legislative mechanism to limit damages in personal injury cases. In North Broward Hospital District v. Kalitan, the Supreme Court decided that non-economic damage caps on medical malpractice actions violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Florida Constitution. Non-economic damages are non-pecuniary harms such as permanent disability, disfigurement, blindness, loss of a limb, paralysis, trauma, or physical pain and suffering. While shocking to some, this decision is not entirely surprising due to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Estate of McCall v. United States that invalidated non-economic damage caps for wrongful death actions under equal protection.

In 2003, the Florida Legislature decided to address the medical malpractice insurance crisis in Florida by enacting Florida Statute 766.118, which limits the non-economic damages that could be awarded in personal injury matters arising from medical negligence.  According to legislative findings at that time, as cited in the McCall opinion, the increase in medical malpractice liability insurance premiums resulted in “physicians leaving Florida, retiring early from the practice of medicine, or refusing to perform high-risk procedures, thereby limiting the availability of health care.” To counter this crisis, Florida Statute 776.118(2) limits non-economic damages awards for medical negligence of practitioners to $500,000 per claimant except where the negligence resulted in a permanent vegetative state, death, or catastrophic injury and a manifest injustice would occur unless increased damages are awarded.  In that case, damages may be awarded in an amount up to $1 million. Section 766.118(3) limits damages to $750,000 and $1.5 million, respectively, when the injury results from the negligence of non-practitioners. By enacting theses caps, the Legislature anticipated that physicians’ medical malpractice insurance premiums would drop, physicians would remain in Florida, not opt for early retirement, the number of physicians practicing without insurance would decrease, and the number of physicians who refused to perform high-risk procedures would decrease.

While it was the Legislature’s position that this alleged crisis was said to be of an “unprecedented magnitude,” the Supreme Court in Kalitan determined that the Legislature’s findings were not supported by the available data. In fact, in the years since the cap’s implementation, the Court found that the intended effects have not manifested themselves.  Instead, physicians have chosen to remain in Florida, but still opt not to carry malpractice insurance; medical malpractice premiums are the same, if not slightly higher; and insurance income increased.

Even if the data were accurate, the Supreme Court declared that the statute nonetheless arbitrarily infringes upon the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the laws, because there is a lack of evidence supporting a direct correlation between non-economic damage caps and reduced malpractice premiums. Relying on its McCall decision, the Supreme Court explained that the damage caps have the effect of saving a minimal amount for many by imposing devastating costs on the most catastrophically injured, and those who sustain the greatest damage and loss. Doing so “offends the fundamental notion of
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Asbestos(Cropped)Travelers Casualty and Surety Company (“Travelers”) dodged a bullet when a $36 million judgment entered against it was unanimously overturned by a recent Third Circuit ruling in General Refractories Co. v. First State Ins. Co., 2017 WL 1416364 (3d. Circ. 2017). Significantly, the Third Circuit held that Travelers had no obligation to indemnify its policyholder, General Refractories Company (“GRC”), for any losses associated with underlying asbestos-related lawsuits based on a policy exclusion for losses “arising out of asbestos.” The crux of the Court’s decision is hinged on the interpretation of the language that shaped the asbestos exclusion in Travelers’ insurance policy, which provided:

“It is agreed that this policy does not apply to EXCESS NET LOSS arising out of asbestos, including but not limited to bodily injury arising out of asbestosis or related diseases or to property damage.”

By way of background, GRC was a manufacturer and supplier of refractory products, some of which contained asbestos. The historical use of asbestos in some of GRC’s products resulted in over 30,000 lawsuits alleging injuries from exposure to asbestos starting in the late 1970s. While GRC’s primary liability insurers handled these claims, it also obtained excess insurance policies for additional coverage from a number of insurers, including Travelers. GRC began tendering the claims to its excess insurers in 2002, after its liabilities had far exceeded the limits of its primary insurance coverage, and the primary insurers could no longer defend and indemnify the company for these claims. All of GRC’s excess insurers, including Travelers, denied coverage based on their policies’ asbestos exclusions. As such, GRC initiated a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Gen. Refractories Co. v. First State Ins. Co., 234 F.R.D. 99, 100 (E.D. Pa. 2005), seeking to recover its losses from the underlying asbestos matters against its excess insurers, alleging that the asbestos exclusion did not preclude it from recovering under the policies. Through the course of the litigation, all of the excess insurers, with the exception of Travelers, resolved with GRC.

The District Court endeavored to interpret Travelers’ asbestos exclusion with a one-day bench trial, and considered argument and evidence from both parties. GRC held strong with its narrow interpretation of the asbestos exclusion, arguing that it only applied to raw mineral asbestos, not asbestos-containing products. In support of its position, GRC presented evidence of: (1) comparable insurance policies that clearly stated asbestos-containing products were excluded; (2) comparable insurance policies with definitions of “asbestos” that failed to include asbestos-containing products; (3) Travelers’ consecutive policies containing less ambiguous language; (4) the definition of asbestos-related claims from outside sources; and (5) expert testimony distinguishing between asbestos and asbestos-containing products. Travelers’ interpretation, however, was much broader, asserting that all asbestos-related claims were precluded under the asbestos exclusion.

The District Court agreed with GRC’s narrow interpretation of the word “asbestos” — concluding that it should be interpreted to mean raw mineral asbestos only. The Court explained that its interpretation was supported by GRC’s evidence of industry custom at the
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