DECEMBER 2014 BAD FAITH CASES: NO ASSIGNMENT CLAUSE DOES NOT BAR COVERAGE WHERE INSURED UNDERGOES A STATUTORY MERGER; INSURER REQUIRED TO PAY COUNSEL FEES, EVEN IN ABSENCE OF BAD FAITH (New Jersey Federal)
In Lime Tree Assocs., LLC v. Burlington Ins. Co., the court considered whether an insurer had properly denied coverage under a ‘no assignment’ clause in the policy, where the underlying insured-company underwent a statutory merger, resulting in a surviving LLC. Under New Jersey law, such a merger entitles the surviving entity to “all of the rights, privileges and powers of each of the partnerships and other business entities that have merged or consolidated, and all property, real, person and mixed, and all debts due to any of those partnerships and other business entities, as well as all other things and causes of action belonging to each of those partnerships and other business entities.”
The insurer denied coverage for a personal injury suit under the ‘no assignment’ clause, as well as under the definition of “insured,” which had been modified by a ‘new entities’ exclusion.
Whether the policy language prevented a transfer of contractual rights following and through a merger is an issue that has not yet been considered by the New Jersey Supreme Court, but has been previously addressed by the Appellate Division of New Jersey and district courts of the Third Circuit. Those jurisdictions have all held that in order to prevent a transfer of rights through merger or by operation of law, the contract’s language must be explicit – the exclusionary language must have anticipated such a transfer and purposefully prevented it.
Therefore, a generic clause barring assignment would be insufficient to bar coverage; rather, to be given effect, the exclusionary clause must contain language that specifically addresses the circumstances and issues at hand. The court determined the no assignment clause in the policy was neither specific nor explicit with regard to transfer by merger or operation of law, and was therefore insufficient to bar coverage.
Furthermore, the reasoning behind the no assignment clause did not support a denial of coverage; no assignment clauses are intended to protect the insurer from unknowingly insuring against unforeseen risks when the coverage is transferred to a different insured, but where the loss has occurred prior to the transfer of coverage, that risk is abated entirely.
For that reason, courts have refused to apply no assignment clauses to transfers occurring by operation of law because such transfers do not entail any increase in the risk or hazard assumed by the insurer. This comports with New Jersey’s practice of strictly construing clauses that are designed to limit coverage.
Coverage was also not excluded by the new entities exclusion because the surviving entity was not a new entity; it succeeded to all of the original insured’s rights automatically and as a matter of law under the state statute. Therefore, the surviving entity was not a newly acquired entity; it was merely a continuation of the original entity.
The court awarded the LLC counsel fees under R. 4:42-9(a)(6), citing authority that the insured was entitled to such fees as the successful claimant. The insurer had declined a defense “even though it knew about their valid statutory merger.” Moreover, although the insurer’s “refusal may not have been in bad faith,” denying the insured counsel fees would have deprived it of the full benefit of its insurance contract.
New Jersey Court Rule 4:42-9(a)(6) permits, at the discretion of the trial court, an award of counsel fees in “an action upon a liability or indemnity policy of insurance, in favor of a successful claimant.”