Louisiana Supreme Court Settles Circuit Dispute Over Insurance Policy Renewal Issue

In a prior post, we reviewed the Johnson v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co. case. The case concerned the undelivered notice from Farm Bureau to Janice Johnson that the company would not renew her homeowner’s insurance policy. The case centered around the state law that requires notice of the intent not to renew:

“An insurer that has issued a policy of homeowner’s insurance shall not fail to renew the policy unless it has mailed or delivered to the named insured, at the address shown in the policy, written notice of its intention not to renew. The notice of nonrenewal shall be mailed or delivered at least thirty days before the expiration date of the policy.” La. R.S. 22:1335, formerly La.R.S. 22:636.6.

In the Johnson case, the Third Circuit interpreted the “mailing or delivery” requirement to mean that the notice must actually be received by the homeowner. During the trial, the jury found that Farm Bureau had properly mailed the notice. But Johnson’s testimony that she always opened every piece of mail she received (except for bank statements) convinced the jury that she had not, in fact, received Farm Bureau’s letter. Since the Third Circuit regarded the conclusion about delivery to be a matter of “the credibility of the witnesses,” and could not find “manifest error in the jury’s credibility determination nor in their determination that the notice of non-renewal was not delivered,” it affirmed the trial court’s award of damages to Johnson.

Farm Bureau appealed this decision, which so happened to contrast directly with a recent decision from the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit case, which featured very similar facts, reached the following conclusion:

“[t]he mailing of a notice of nonrenewal to the insured’s address, as listed on the policy, at least thirty days before the expiration of the policy satisfies the burden placed upon the insurer.” Collins v. State Farm (La.App. 4 Cir. 1/26/11).

The Louisiana Supreme Court sided with the Fourth Circuit, finding that “the key is that the statute requires only mailing, not proof of receipt.” Because “the plain language of the statute requires only that such notice be mailed,” in the court’s view “any evidence of non-delivery is relevant only as far as it is evidence of non-mailing or improper mailing.” The court determined that the jury’s fact-finding duty extended no farther than determining that Farm Bureau had properly mailed the notice, which was “all that [Farm Bureau] was required to do under [the statute] in order to give notice of nonrenewal of [Johnson’s] insurance policy.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit and declared that “Farm Bureau did not provide homeowner’s coverage to [Johnson] at the time of the loss.” As a result, Johnson was denied the $296,500 payment she expected from Farm Bureau.

The purpose of the nonrenewal notice is to provide an insured homeowner sufficient time to obtain new insurance with another company before the existing policy expires. While the law placed a specific burden on insurance companies to send such a notice, customers in Louisiana are now clearly warned that the failed delivery of a properly mailed notice will not obligate an insurer to extend coverage, even if the consequences are catastrophic to the homeowner.

If you are facing a dispute over coverage with your insurance company, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help.

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