United States: California Supreme Court Concludes Notice-Prejudice Rule Applies To Consent Clauses In First-Party Insurance Policies

Last Updated: September 30 2019
Article by Andrew B. Downs

When it comes to insurance coverage, one cue to the court's feelings about an issue is whether it views that issue as a "technicality." When that happens, good things rarely result. Another cue is when the case turns on an esoteric legal issue of greater interest to academics than people living their daily lives. Pitzer College v. Indian Harbor Ins. Co. (August 29, 2019) combines both of those situations. The result was not good for the insurance industry.

Pitzer College is one of the Claremont Colleges in Southern California. Claremont bought a policy providing coverage for pollution remediation expenses. During the construction of a new dormitory, Pitzer discovered lead contamination on its property. It promptly began remediation activities. It didn't notify its insurer until some months later after remediation was complete. The insurer denied the claim based on late notice and breach of the policy's consent to incur expenses clause. The policy had a choice of law clause making New York law applicable to its interpretation and enforcement.

The California Supreme Court was asked to determine (a)Whether California's notice-prejudice rule, under which an insurer denying on the basis of late notice must prove it was prejudiced, was a fundamental public policy which should be applied notwithstanding a contractual choice of law clause in favor of New York; and (b)whether that notice-prejudice rule should be applied to consent to incur expenses requirements in first-party policies.

Choice of law is a subject which can make both lawyers' and judges' brains hurt, but that's reflective of the fact that the differences in state law can be outcome determinative. California, like most jurisdictions, will enforce contractual choice of law clauses, like the one in the policy here, provided it isn't (in layman's terms) really important that California law applies. In this case, if New York law applied, the insurer would win, while if California law applied, the policyholder might win. Under California's choice of law jurisprudence, a contractual choice of law provision, like the one favoring New York here, won't be enforced if the result would conflict with California's fundamental public policy and if California had a materially greater interest in the determination of the issue than New York.

The notice-prejudice rule requires the insurer to prove the policyholder's late notice of a claim has "substantially prejudiced" the insurer. Here, the California Supreme Court concluded the notice-prejudice rule was a fundamental public policy of California. Because the case reached the Supreme Court on certification from the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (a way for the federal courts to solicit the state court's opinion on a question of state law), the Supreme Court wasn't able to determine whether California had a materially greater interest in determining these issues than New York did.

In the long run, the second issue addressed by the court may be more important. The policy required notice and, in non-emergency situations, consent to the expenditure of funds by the policyholder. Here, the Supreme Court drew a distinction between third-party liability policies where it agreed "no voluntary payment" provisions were enforceable without a need to prove prejudice and first-party policies where it concluded the notice-prejudice doctrine applied. The court reasoned the insurer's right to control the defense and settlement of claims is paramount in third-party claims, so breaches of the consent clause are inherently prejudicial, but in the first-party context requiring proof of prejudice before denying coverage is appropriate because the failure to obtain advance consent is not inherently prejudicial unlike the situation in third-party claims.

What does this mean for insurers in their day to day operations? First, having a contractual choice of law clause that selects favorable, or at least predictable, law is not a panacea because if the different California law reflects a fundamental public policy in California, the choice of law clause may be disregarded. Second, in a first-party context (and the policy issued to Pitzer is somewhat unusual in that, at least from the policyholder's perspective, it provided coverage for the voluntary remediation of the policyholder's own property), the courts will expect some actual, not theoretical, harm, from the failure to give advance notice and obtain consent for expenditures.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions