In the settlement of lawsuits involving insured claims, it is not uncommon that one condition of the settlement is that the defendant assign his or her claims under all applicable insurance policies to the party that filed suit.
Indeed, it is frequently the case that the defendant, particularly when the defendant is an individual, has a limited ability to pay a judgment and insurance coverage offers the best opportunity for a recovery by the suing party. Usually, such settlements are made without any serious thought being given to whether the defendant’s claim against its insurer is assignable; the assumption being that it is assignable.
However, insurance policies generally have anti-assignment clauses which prohibit the assignment of the policy, or an interest in the policy, without the insurer’s consent. These clauses come into play in determining the validity or enforceability of the assignment of a claim under an insurance policy and should be considered when such an assignment is part of a settlement.
When considering the enforceability of anti-assignment clauses in insurance policies, the courts generally draw a distinction between an assignment made prior to the occurrence of a covered loss (a “pre-loss” assignment) and an assignment made after the occurrence of a covered loss (a “post-loss” assignment).
In analyzing pre-loss assignments, the courts recognize that requiring an insurer to provide coverage to an assignee of its policy prior to the occurrence of a covered loss would place the insurer in the position of covering a party with whom it had not contracted nor been allowed to properly underwrite to assess the risks posed by that potential insured, and, accordingly, determine the appropriate premium to charge for the risks being undertaken or choose to decline coverage.
Post-loss assignments, on the other hand, take place after the insurer’s obligations under its policy have become fixed by the occurrence of a covered loss, thus the risk factors applicable to the assignee are irrelevant with regard to the covered loss in question. For these reasons, the majority of the courts enforce anti-assignment clauses to prohibit or restrict pre-loss assignments, but refuse to enforce anti-assignment clauses to prohibit or restrict post-loss assignments.
The Louisiana Supreme Court, which had not previously addressed the enforceability of anti-assignment clauses for post-loss assignments, was recently confronted with this issue in the In re: Katrina Canal Breaches Litigation, litigation involving consolidated cases arising out of Hurricane Katrina. The issue arose as a result of a lawsuit brought by the State of Louisiana as the assignee of claims under numerous insurance policies as part of the “Road Home” Program. The Road Home Program was set up following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to distribute federal funds to homeowners suffering damage from the hurricanes. In return for receiving a grant of up to $150,000, homeowners were required to execute a Limited Subrogation/Assignment agreement, which provided in pertinent part:
“I/we hereby assign to the State of Louisiana . . . to the extent of the grant proceeds awarded or to be awarded to me under the [Road Home] Program, all of my/our claims and future rights to reimbursement and all payments hereafter received or to be received by me/us: (a) under any policy of casualty or property damage insurance or flood insurance on the residence, excluding contents (“Residence”) described in my/our application for Homeowner’s Assistance under the Program (“Policies”): (b) from FEMA, Small Business Administration, and any other federal agency, arising out of physical damage to the Residence caused by Hurricane Katrina and/or Hurricane Rita.”
Pursuant to these Limited Subrogation/Assignments, the State of Louisiana brought suit against more than 200 insurance companies to recover funds dispensed under the Road Home Program. The suit was removed to Federal Court under the Class Action Fairness Act and the insurers filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the assignments to the State of Louisiana were invalid under the anti-assignment clauses in the homeowner policies at issue.
On appeal, the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals certified the following question to the Louisiana Supreme Court: “Does an anti-assignment clause in a homeowner’s insurance policy, which by its plain terms purports to bar any assignment of the policy or an interest therein without the insurer’s consent, bar an insured’s post-loss assignment of the insured’s claims under the policy when such an assignment transfers contractual obligations, not just the right to money due?”
In answering this question, the Louisiana Supreme Court began by noting that, as a general matter, contractual rights are assignable unless the law, the contract terms or the nature of the contract preclude assignment. Specific to the certified question, Louisiana Civil Code article 2653 provides that a right “cannot be assigned when the contract from which it arises prohibits the assignment of that right.” The Louisiana Supreme Court observed that the language of article 2653 is broad and, on its face, applies to all assignments, including post-loss assignments of insurance claims. The Court, therefore, construed the issue confronting it as whether Louisiana public policy would enforce an anti-assignment clause to preclude post-loss assignments of claims under insurance policies.
In addressing the public policy question, the Louisiana Supreme Court recognized the distinction between pre-loss assignments and post-loss assignments discussed by courts from other states and noted that the prevailing view was that anti-assignment clauses were invalid and/or unenforceable when applied to post-loss assignments. Notwithstanding this weight of authority, the Louisiana Supreme Court stated:
“[W]hile the Louisiana legislature has clearly indicated an intent to allow parties freedom to assign contractual rights, by enacting La. C.C. art. 2653, it has also clearly indicated an intent to allow parties freedom to contractually prohibit assignment of rights. We recognize the vast amount of national jurisprudence distinguishing between pre-loss and post-loss assignments and rejecting restrictions on post-loss assignments, however we find no public policy in Louisiana favoring assignability of claims over freedom of contract.”
Thus, Court refused to invalidate the enforceability of the anti-assignment clauses to the post-loss assignments before it based on public policy, adding that public policy determinations are better suited to the legislature.
Nonetheless, after having recognized the general enforceability of anti-assignment clauses to post-loss assignments, the Court immediately placed limits on when those clauses would be applicable, stating that to be applicable, they “must clearly and unambiguously express that the non-assignment clause applies to post-loss assignments.” The Court refused “to formulate a test consisting of specific terms or words,” which would satisfy this condition and remanded the case to the federal courts to determine whether the individual anti-assignment clauses in the various policies were sufficiently clear and explicit to be enforced with respect to post-loss assignments at issue.
A Broad Application
It should be noted that the Court’s opinion appears to apply broadly to all post-loss assignments irrespective of what specific rights are being assigned, despite the fact that the certified question was narrower and asked only about the applicability of a post-loss assignment where the assignment “transfers contractual obligations, not just the right to money due.”
In a footnote at the beginning of its opinion, the Louisiana Supreme Court observed that in certifying the question to it, the Fifth Circuit “disclaimed any intent” that the Court “confine its reply to the precise form or scope of the legal questions certified.” The footnote indicates that the Court’s opinion was not intended to be limited to only those post-loss assignments involving the assignment of contractual obligations.
Louisiana has departed from the majority view in holding that as a matter of general law, anti-assignment clauses are not inherently void with regard to post-loss assignments. However, it may be that in practical application, the results of individual cases may well be consistent with the majority rule of not enforcing anti-assignment clauses with regard to post-loss assignments because Louisiana courts may be reluctant to find that the anti-assignment clauses are sufficiently “clear and explicit” unless they specifically state that they apply to post-loss assignments, notwithstanding the Louisiana Supreme Court’s unwillingness to “formulate a test consisting of specific terms or words.”
Robert Redfearn, Jr. (Redfearnjr@spsr-law.com) is a partner in Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn, a regional law firm with offices in New Orleans, La., and Mississippi.
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