When one is successful on a claim against an insurance company the payment of the claim is expected to be prompt. Any delay in payment could result in the court imposing a penalty against the insurance company. In most, if not all, cases this penalty takes the form of court costs and attorney’s fees. But if an insurance company challenges a policy claim in court, and then loses, does that time when payment was refused constitute delay? The answer to this question is ‘it depends.’
In Louisiana Bag Co. v. Audubon Indemnity Co., the court held that if an insurer errs in interpreting its own insurance contract, then the insurance company will be held liable for the delay in payment resulting from the trial. This delay justifies the incurrence of penalties for attorney’s fees. If, however, the policy dispute revolves around facts rather than contract interpretation, then the “timely payment” provision is stayed during the trial. This was the situation of Maxley v. Universal Casualty Co. where Maxley’s car insurance policy through Casualty covered loss from both theft and fire. When Maxley’s car was stolen and set on fire, he filed for his claim. However, Maxley had left his car unlocked with the key in it. The policy through Casualty had an exception that nullified any claim if there was no evidence of forcible entry. The issue went to court with Casualty claiming it owed nothing under the policy because the theft was not through a forcible entry, and Maxley contesting payment was due under the fire provision of the policy rather than the theft. Maxley, in essence, argued that the exclusion provision for no evidence of forced entry was irrelevant because his car would have been recovered if it had not been for the fire.
The court found for Maxley, who then sought attorney’s fees for Casualty’s failure to make timely payment. The Third Court of Appeal upheld the denial of Maxley’s claim, stating that Maxley’s reliance on Louisiana Bag was misplaced. While Louisiana Bag relied on policy interpretation, Maxley’s case relied on a true disputation of the facts. It would be senseless to require the insurance company to pay the claim only to the have the claim payment rescinded if the facts were found in favor of the insurance company. This finding upholds efficiency in the industry as it is easier to withhold payment until truly due than it is to always make payment, then try to recoup it if made erroneously.
When going to court over a contested policy claim, it is important read through your policy contract. If, according to the policy, it is unambiguous that you are entitled to payment, then attorney’s fees may also be charged against the insurance company for failing to pay in a timely manner. However, most insurance claims that wind up in court do so because there are questions of material fact relating to the policy. So ask yourself: is the insurance company contesting what happened to the item covered, or how the policy covers it?
The above question is simply a starting point in determining whether or not payment has been erroneously withheld. Insurance claims are complicated and require the expertise of a licensed, practicing attorney. If you have any questions regarding your insurance claim, contact the Berniard Law Firm.