The Law

Legal Spotlight

The latest decisions impacting the industry.
By: | December 10, 2014 • 5 min read

Jury Rules in Favor of Insured

Sometime between Jan. 12, 2009 and February 5, 2009, one or more individuals entered the disc jockey’s room at the Cabo Wabo Cantina and Memphis Blues nightclub in Fresno, Calif., and stole about $140,000 of electronic equipment including HD televisions, speakers and sound mixers.

Fresno Rock Taco, which operated the cantina and nightclub, reported the theft to the police upon the advice of its broker, and filed a claim with National Surety Corp., a Fireman’s Fund Co., for the equipment, property damage and for loss of business income. It had two insurance policies with respective limits of $2.6 million and $6.1 million.

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Fresno Rock, along with Zone Sports Center LLC, owner of the property at the time of the theft, filed suit against National Surety when the claim was denied.

The insurance company alleged the loss of equipment was due to repossession rather than theft, according to court documents.

Cabo Wabo denied repossession was involved, and noted in court documents that a search of the premises by the state Department of Insurance for possible insurance fraud “revealed no wrongdoing of any kind and no charges of insurance fraud or any other crime have been filed against anyone connected to this matter.”

After a trial in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Fresno Division, a jury ruled on Aug. 22 that Cabo Wabo and Zone Sports had suffered a covered loss and did not make a false claim to the insurance company.

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It ordered the insurer to pay $2.2 million to Cabo Wabo for business interruption losses and about $275,000 to the property owner for property damage losses.

Scorecard: The insurance company was ordered to pay $2.5 million for the claim.
Takeaway: National Surety’s belief that the theft was questionable and that security measures were inadequate did not sway the jury.

Insurer Need Not Pay Auto Settlement

Tyler Roush was driving his mother’s car on Aug. 3, 2009 when he struck and severely injured a pedestrian, Lloyd Miller.

Miller and his wife Nancy filed suit against Roush and his parents, Sharon and George Roush, and Brash Tygr, which owned and operated a Sonic Drive-In restaurant in Carrollton, Mo. The parents owned 75 percent of Brash Tygr; Tyler and his brother Brandon each owned another 5 percent.

The company was covered as part of a commercial lines master policy issued to Sonic Insurance Advisory Trust by Hudson Specialty Insurance Co. The CGL policy had a Hired and Non-Owned Auto Liability endorsement, under which the family and franchise sought coverage.

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Hudson provided a defense, under a reservation of rights, until the family rejected that defense and settled the Millers’ lawsuit for $5.8 million in compensatory and punitive damages, according to court documents. At the same time, the family admitted that Tyler Roush was “conducting the business of Brash Tygr” during the accident.

Tyler Roush, who had not worked for the restaurant for a long time, had been on some errands for his mother at the time of the accident. While he was depositing his mother’s paycheck at a local bank, an employee had handed him some bank deposit bags for use by Sonic Drive-In, according to court documents.

Because of that action, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri-Kansas City ruled that Roush had “a dual purpose” in his travels and was acting “in the course of [the restaurant’s] business.”

On appeal, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 7 disagreed. In a 2-1 decision, the majority ruled there was no dual business purpose. It ruled that “picking up the bags was a matter of convenience, not necessity, for Brash Tygr and the Sonic Drive-In.”

In his dissent, Judge Kermit Bye said it was uncontroverted that Brash Tygr used such deposit bags and that the company did not have “a limitless supply.” Thus, at some point, an employee would have needed to “make a special trip to the bank for deposit bags if Tyler Roush had not brought them to his parents’ home.”

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The court also ruled that Hudson had not been given an opportunity to contest coverage in the wake of the family’s admission that Tyler Roush had been acting in the course of business.

Scorecard: The insurance company did not have to cover any of the $5.8 million in settlement costs.
Takeaway: Accepting the deposit bags “was a ‘casual and incidental’ aspect of a purely personal trip that did not give that trip a dual business purpose under Missouri law,” according to the court’s majority opinion.

Insurer Must Pay for Explosion Costs

In 2009, A.H. Meyer’s plant in Winfred, S.D., exploded for the second time in five years. The cause was heptane, a highly volatile solvent manufactured by Citgo Petroleum Corp., which is used in the production of beeswax.

After the first explosion in 2004, A.H. Meyer redesigned the plant so that electrical switches were at least five feet away — the recommended distance — from the 150-gallon storage “kettle” of heptane at the factory. In the previous plant, the distance had only been four feet. The company also added a ventilation system, as recommended.

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Nonetheless, an explosion occurred in 2009 when heptane spilled from the kettle and an employee pressed a switch to turn off a pump, according to court documents. Nationwide Insurance Co., which paid for the damage, filed a subrogation suit against Citgo, the manufacturer, and Barton Solvents, the supplier of the heptane.

It argued the companies were liable and negligent because the warnings were inadequate. A safety expert it hired said that the ventilation system meant to reduce risk was actually the reason for the explosion.
Nationwide also argued the companies had provided an express and implied warranty of the heptane.

Both the Circuit Court of the Third Judicial Lake County and the state Supreme Court disagreed, granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that both the supplier and manufacturer “collectively warned that heptane was volatile and explosive,” and that A.H. Meyer complied with all safety recommendations.

“Ultimately, Nationwide’s inadequate warning claim is based on nothing more than the fact of the accident, speculation, and conjecture,” it ruled.
It also said that pointing out danger is not the same as a warranty, which implies a promise.

Scorecard: Nationwide’s attempt to subrogate the costs for repair were denied.
Takeaway: A safety warning is “an alert,” while a warranty is a “promise that the thing being sold is as represented,” the court ruled.

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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