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Natchitoches Parish House Fire Ignites Dispute Over Insurance Coverage

In a recent post, we reviewed the Nolan v. Mabray case which discussed the requirement under Louisiana law that an insurance company must mail a written notice of its intent not to renew an existing policy at least thirty days prior to the policy’s expiration. La.R.S. 22:636.6. The purpose of the notice is to provide the insured sufficient opportunity to obtain insurance with another company before the existing policy expires. In the event of a dispute, the insurer faces the initial burden to prove that it mailed the required notice. Then, the property owner may rebut this presumption by offering evidence that the notice was never delivered. The ultimate factual determination must be made by the jury. The recent case of Johnson v. Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co. offers another look at the rule’s application.

In 2001, Janice Johnson bought a homeowner’s insurance policy from the Louisiana Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company (“Farm Bureau”) for her home in Campti. She set up a bill-pay debit arrangement with her bank under which her monthly premiums were automatically paid to Farm Bureau. In 2006, after completing a routine inspection of Johnson’s property, Farm Bureau decided not to renew the policy when it expired the following July. Accordingly, on May 2, 2007, Farm Bureau mailed a written notice of non-renewal to Johnson and the policy expired on July 10, 2007. Tragically, Johnson’s house was destroyed by fire on November 7, 2007. Farm Bureau rejected Johnson’s subsequent claim for total loss on the grounds that she did not have a policy in place at the time of the incident. Johnson filed suit on July 24, 2008 seeking monetary relief for the losses she sustained in the fire. In her petition, Johnson asserted that she was covered by the
policy and that she was not notified that the policy had expired until after the fire. Farm Bureau responded with a general denial, arguing that Johnson was provided with written notice of non-renewal and that the policy was not in effect at the time of the fire. At the conclusion of a jury trial, the jury found Farm Bureau had properly mailed the non-renewal notice on May 2, 2007 as required under Louisiana law. However, it also found that the notice had not been delivered to Johnson. The trial court entered judgment in favor of Johnson and awarded her damages in the amount of the policy limits: $297,000 less a $500 deductible. Farm Bureau appealed, contending that the jury “committed manifest error” and was “clearly wrong” in determining that the non-renewal notice had not been delivered.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeal reviewed the trial record which contained the evidence Johnson offered to rebut the presumption of delivery. Johnson testified that she always opens every piece of mail she receives except for her bank statements, and that she never received the notice Farm Bureau. Johnson’s testimony was corroborated by her sister, who often picked up Johnson’s mail from the post office box which was Johnson’s registered address on her insurance policy. In response to Farm Bureau’s argument that Johnson should have known that her policy was expired because the company stopped withdrawing payments in May 2007, Johnson stated that she did not routinely open mail from her bank or reconcile her checking account. The court noted that “the jury was able to take [all of this] testimony into consideration” in making “a determination of the credibility of the witnesses.” Mindful of its duty to “afford great deference to the factfinders’ determinations,” the court concluded that, “although some of the testimony presented is questionable,” it could not find “manifest error in the jury’s credibility determination nor in their determination that the notice of non-renewal was not delivered to Johnson.”

The Johnson case, much like the Nolan case, turned on the critical role that the jury plays in settling issues of fact. Even if an appellate court believes after reviewing the record that its credibility determination is more accurate than the jury’s, it cannot substitute its own view unless it finds that the jury’s conclusion was based on testimony “so absurd that a reasonable person would not credit it.” Clearly, in this case, Johnson’s even somewhat suspect testimony did not rise to this level.

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