July 12, 2018
Acupuncture Work, P.C. v Infinity Ins. Co. (2018 NY Slip Op 51109(U))
Reported in New York Official Reports at Acupuncture Work, P.C. v Infinity Ins. Co. (2018 NY Slip Op 51109(U))
Acupuncture Work, P.C., AAO, Ngozichuwwu (Lis) Amadi, Plaintiffs,
Infinity Insurance Company, Defendant.
For Plaintiff: Marcote & Associates, P.C.
For Defendant: Freiberg, Peck & Kang, LLP
Armando Montano, J.
After conducting a no-fault bench trial on the above captioned matter, this Court makes the following findings and conclusions:
At the commencement of the above captioned trial, the attorneys for the respective parties entered into a Stipulation that contained documents to be relied upon by the defendant’s witness, to wit: letters, correspondence, statements, denials and an insurance policy application. Respective counsels acknowledged having examined all documents contained in the Stipulation and agreed that foundation for their introduction had been established and put into evidence, which was marked as Court Exhibit I, which contained documents marked as Exhibits A through J.
In his opening statement, plaintiff’s counsel stated that the above captioned matter involved a rescission of an automobile policy with regard to no-fault law benefits. Plaintiff’s counsel essentially was contesting whether defendant’s witness’ testimony as to the basis for the rescission of the automobile policy and the documentation contained within Court Exhibit I would be sufficient to establish a foundation for the rescission. Plaintiff’s counsel final representation was that the parties would further stipulate that the plaintiff’s claims for medical services rendered had been mailed to the defendant’s insurance company and as such, that the plaintiff established its prima facie case.
Defendant’s counsel stated that the automobile insurance policy referenced by plaintiff’s counsel was a South Carolina policy which resulted in a conflict of laws between South Carolina and New York State with respect to the rescission of the policy. Defendant’s counsel acknowledged that in establishing an automobile insurance policy rescission issued for another state, New York case law placed the burden on the defendant/insurer to establish that the rescission was actually executed, by establishing that the rescission letter was mailed and that the policy premiums were refunded to the insured.
Defendant’s counsel further argued that New York case law did not impose a burden to [*2]establish that any underlying fraud had occurred before establishing a sister state rescission. Defendant’s counsel nonetheless represented that Court Exhibit I provided some proof of the underlying fraud to which defendant’s witness, Barbara Terry, would testify to. Defendant counsel, in his opening statement, also stated that if the automobile insurance policy rescission was found to be proper then the injured party and even the third party, the plaintiff in the above captioned matter, would be precluded from obtaining any insurance benefits. Finally, counsel for the respective parties further stipulated that on November 7, 2007, the defendant insurer had mailed out a rescission letter with two (2) premium refund checks in the amounts of $16,762.76 and $1,562.00, respectively, sent to the policyholder, which the latter cashed. See Exhibit J contained in Court Exhibit I.
This Court’s review of Exhibit A attached to Court Exhibit I, reveals that the November 15, 1999, application for automobile insurance, purportedly submitted by the insured, Jerome McDowell, only lists his name as the motorist. Furthermore, in the “Applicant’s Statement-Read Before Signing” of Exhibit A, Jerome McDowell, certified that, in relevant part, “(a) all operators of my vehicle have been reported to the company and (b) my principal residence/place of vehicle garaging is in South Carolina, ten (10) or more months each year “
Further contained in the Applicant’s Statement is a representation by the insured, Jerome McDowell, that he has applied to the company ” for a policy of insurance as set forth in this application on the basis of the statements contained herein. I agree that such policy of insurance shall be null and void if such information is false, or misleading, or could materially affect acceptance of the risk by the company ” Exhibit A furthermore contains the November 15, 2006, Renewal Declarations which then added the 2000 Dodge Intrepid to the insurance policy. Exhibit A also contains as an attachment the Personal Automobile Policy- South Carolina. In Part F- General Provisions of the policy, there is a termination clause, paragraph 1, that provides that “this policy may be cancelled during the policy period as follows: iii. If the policy was obtained through willful misrepresentation, or concealment of any material fact or circumstances, or fraud.”
The policy’s termination clause in the insurance policy furthermore states in relevant part, “the statements made by you in the application are deemed to be representations. If any representation is false, misleading or materially affects the acceptance of this risk by us, by either willful misrepresentation, omission, concealment of facts or incorrect statements, this policy may be null and void from its inception, whether before or after the loss. We do not provide coverage for any insured who has made fraudulent statements or engaged in fraudulent conduct in connection with any accident or loss for which coverage is sought under this policy.”
Also contained within the insurance policy are declarations stating, in relevant part, that by accepting this policy you agree that this policy is issued upon the truth of the information provided by you. Exhibit C of Court Exhibit I contains the March 12, 2007, police accident report listing as the driver of the 2000 Dodge Intrepid, Ngozichakwuu Amadi, residing at 772 Jefferson Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, and listing the vehicle’s owner as Jerome Wallace McDowell, residing at 110 Madison Street, Olanta, South Carolina.
This Court also reviewed Exhibit G of Court Exhibit I, the May 7, 2007, tape recorded telephone interview of Garis McDowell. In said interview, Garis McDowell stated, in relevant part, the following: that he resided at 772 Jefferson Avenue, Brooklyn, New York, for the past approximately seven to eight years; that Ngozichakwuu Amadi, the operator of the 2000 Dodge Intrepid involved in the March 12, 2007, automobile accident has resided together with him for [*3]approximately twelve years and who he considers his common-law wife; that although his brother, Jerome McDowell, the insured and the documented owner of the 2000 Dodge Intrepid, gave him permission to use said vehicle, that the vehicle was kept in Brooklyn, New York, and which he used on and off for years, and that in turn, he had given Ms. Amadi permission on March 12, 2007, to drive the automobile. Garis McDowell further stated that his brother, Jerome McDowell, was aware that he, Garis McDowell, had given Ms. Amadi permission to drive the subject vehicle. Garis McDowell further stated that motor vehicles have been shared by the family. At the conclusion of the interview, Garis McDowell stated that he truthfully answered all questions asked of him and that he understood all questions asked of him.
This Court has reviewed Exhibit H, the September 26, 2007, examination under oath of the insured, Jerome McDowell. In relevant part, Jerome McDowell acknowledged that although he maintained automobile insurance, he denied ever owning the 2000 Dodge Intrepid, although it was insured on his insurance policy, that Mary McFadden, the sister of both himself and Garis McDowell, made all the arrangements to insure the motor vehicles, Jerome could not even state with certainty that he himself was the signatory on the insurance application and that his sister, Mary McFadden had his authorization to sign his name to obtain insurance. Jerome McDowell furthermore stated that as far as the 1960’s all motor vehicle purchases by various family members were placed in his mother’s name and all vehicles were placed on the same insurance policy. Jerome McDowell further stated that Garis McDowell drove the 2000 Dodge Intrepid back and forth from New York to South Carolina, never leaving it for more than three months at a time in South Carolina. Jerome McDowell also stated that he himself never gave permission to his brother Garis McDowell’s “common-law wife”, Ms. Amadi, to drive the subject vehicle as he does not even know her.
This Court then reviewed Exhibit I and Exhibit J, respectively, contained in Court Exhibit I. Exhibit I is the November 7, 2007, rescission letter by the insurer’s Senior Special Investigator, Robert Dwy. Said letter informed the insured, Jerome McDowell, in relevant part, that upon completion of the investigation into the claims, it had been determined that material misrepresentations in the procurement of the automobile insurance policy had been made by Jerome McDowell; that the insurer had issued the insurance policy based upon those misrepresentations in the application for issuance; it appearing that the insured, Jerome McDowell, insured his vehicles for other family members that were never listed on the policy and that the listed vehicles were not garaged in the State of South Carolina.
Senior Special Investigator Robert Dwy concluded his November 7, 2007, letter by stating that “in accordance with the policy terms and as a result of [the] investigation, [the] policy has been voided back to the inception. All moneys paid on [the] policy are being refunded to you. Furthermore, coverage for all claims resultant from the accident of March 12, 2007, is being denied.” Exhibit J documents the payments made to the insured, Jerome McDowell, and received by his attesting to the return of all moneys paid by him on the policy.
On November 17, 2017, a non-jury trial in the above captioned no-fault proceeding was conducted by this Court, wherein in addition to the joint submission into evidence of Court Exhibit I, the defendant insurer called New York Personal Insurance Protection Specialist Barbara Terry as a witness. Ms. Terry testified that her duties for the insurer was to handle any claims that originate for the State of New York pertaining to accidents occurring within New York State. Ms. Terry testified she was familiar with the claim having read the file and that the claim decision was to rescind the policy based on material misrepresentations and fraud. Said [*4]decision was based on the vehicle involved in the accident was not garaged in South Carolina where the policy originated from as it was garaged in New York. This information as to where the subject vehicle was garaged was obtained from statements made by the insured, Jerome McDowell (Exhibit H), and his brother, Garis McDowell (Exhibit G).
Ms. Terry furthermore testified that the insurance policy application never made any indication of Garis McDowell nor Ms. Amadi as additional drivers. Ms. Terry furthermore testified that the failure to list either Garis McDowell or Ms. Amadi as additional drivers was a misrepresentation constituting a material risk to what was insured. As such, Ms. Terry stated that the insurer would not have underwritten the particular policy or insured Jerome McDowell. Ms. Terry also testified that the information provided in the application and for which the insurer relied were misrepresentations made to defraud the insurer.
As to the involvement, if any, of Ms. Amadi pertaining to the misrepresentations made to the insurer, Ms. Terry testified that although the former was not listed as a driver on the policy, that she must have been aware of the misrepresentations on the basis of having resided for twelve years with the insured’s brother, Garis McDowell. This Court rejects Ms. Amadi’s alleged awareness as to the misrepresentation as being based on speculation.
On cross examination, Ms. Terry acknowledged that the insurer received plaintiff’s bills for acupuncture treatments rendered to Ms. Amadi. When questioned as to the insurer issuing delay and/or denial letters until the investigation was completed, Ms. Terry stated that they were sent but other than the November 7, 2007, rescission letter no such letters were introduced into evidence and defendant insurer’s attorney stipulated on the record hat no specific claim denials of any of the bills in dispute were in evidence. Ms. Terry furthermore testified that none of the claims in connection with the March 12, 2007, accident were ever paid. At the conclusion of her testimony, Ms. Terry acknowledged that no statements were made or taken of the driver, Ms. Amadi, nor was there any request that she submit to an examination under oath.
In order for this Court to render a decision, it would in the first instance have to resolve the conflict of laws between New York law and South Carolina Law. According to plaintiff’s counsel, under New York law there is no preclusion of defenses if a claim is not paid or denied within thirty days. And as stipulated by the parties on the record that once the claims in dispute were mailed to the insurance company, the plaintiff has established its prima faie case and is entitled to payment as no payment nor denial of payment was made by the insurer. In effect, the plaintiff is arguing that by mailing out the claim and with the failure of the insurer to pay the claim or dispute payment of the claim within thirty days of receipt of the claim, the insurer is strictly liable for payment under New York’s No-Fault Law.
According to the defendant’s counsel, the argument is that the applicable law to decide the case is not New York law but South Carolina law. Defense counsel argues that South Carolina law allows the rescission of the insurance policy and also allows the rescission to be made retroactively, including after the occurrence of the accident.
The case of Careplus Medical Supply, Inc., as Assignee of Luis Gomez v Selective Insurance Company of America, 25 Misc 3d 48 [App Term 2009], is instructive as it pertains to a conflict of law, the very issue presented in the case at bar relating to an insurance policy which must be resolved by the conflict of laws relevant to contracts. (see Zurich Ins. Co. v Shearson Lehman Hutton, 84 NY2d 309, 319 ; Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. [Stolarz—New Jersey Mftrs. Ins. Co.], 81 NY2d 219, 226 [1993). The Court of Appeals has adopted a “center of gravity” or “grouping of contacts” approach (Auten v Auten, 308 NY 155, 160 ), which [*5]gives controlling effect to the law of the state that has “the most significant relationship to the transaction and the parties” (Restatement [Second] of Conflict of Laws § 188 ). In addition to the traditional determinative factor of the place of contracting, which should be given “heavy weight” in a grouping of contacts analysis (see Haag v Barnes, 9 NY2d 554, 560 ), the places of negotiation and performance, the location of the subject matter of the contract, and the domicile or place of business of the contracting parties are also to be considered (see Zurich Ins. Co., 84 NY2d at 319; Restatement [Second] of Conflict of Laws § 188 ). The accident herein occurred in New York. The relevant insurance policy was negotiated and entered into in South Carolina by the insured who lived in South Carolina, for a vehicle which was to be garaged and registered in South Carolina. The assignor, who was driving the insured’s vehicle at the time of the accident, resided in New York.
While “strong governmental interests . . . [may] be considered” (Matter of Allstate Ins. Co. [Stolarz—New Jersey Mfrs. Ins. Co.], 81 NY2d at 226), I find that governmental policy is not an overriding factor under the circumstances presented herein (see e.g. Matter of Eagle Ins. Co. v Singletary, 279 AD2d 56 ). Therefore, upon the application of a “center of gravity” or “grouping of contacts” analysis, I find that the dispositive factors weigh in South Carolina’s favor and, therefore, its law should control (see e.g. Scotland v Allstate Ins. Co., 35 AD3d 584 ; Matter of Eagle Ins. Co. v Singletary, 279 AD2d at 56).
I do not see how any reasonable inference can be drawn from the record, other than it was the intent of the insured, Jerome McDowell, with the knowledge and cooperation of his brother, Garis McDowell, in making false and untrue answers to the questions asked in the insurance policy application to deliberately deceive the insurer and thereby procure the liability insurance. The intent with which misrepresentations of fact are made in the application for automobile liability insurance, may be deduced from the facts and circumstances surrounding the making of the misrepresentations. The 2000 Dodge Intrepid
This Court further credits the testimony of Ms. Terry that the insurer that had Jerome McDowell answered the questions on the insurance application truthfully the insurer would not have accepted the risk and issued the policy of insurance in question. Clearly there is a higher probability of accidents occurring in a congested metropolitan area than in a small rural area which would impact the premiums charged in the respective areas. The subject motor vehicle was never garaged in South Carolina for at least 10-months out of the calendar year and was not driven by the only listed driver, Jerome McDowell.
Defendant established, prima facie, that the underlying Florida automobile insurance policy had been properly rescinded ab initio, in accordance with Florida law, and that there was therefore no coverage available to plaintiff’s assignor. Defendant’s evidence at trial included the submission of Court Exhibit I which contained attached documents labelled Exhibits A through J and the testimony of its litigation specialist and other proof demonstrating that a rescission notice was sent to the assignor-insured and that defendant had returned all premiums paid within a reasonable time after discovery of the grounds for rescinding the policy (see W.H.O. Acupuncture, P.C. v Infinity Prop. & Cas. Co., 36 Misc 3d 4, 6-7 [App Term, 2d, 11th & 13th Jud Dists 2012], citing Leonardo v State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 675 So 2d 176, 179 [Fla 1996]; see also Hu-Nam-Nam v Infinity Ins. Co., 51 Misc 3d 130 [A], 2016 NY Slip Op 50391[U] [App Term, 2d, 11th & 13th Jud Dists 2016]).
Although the insurer neither paid nor denied the claims within 30 days as required by Insurance Law § 5106 (a) and 11 NYCRR 65.15 (g) (3), and failed to request verification within [*6]the prescribed time frames (see, 11 NYCRR 65.15 [d] , ) resulting in the plaintiff then commencing the within action, pursuant to Insurance Law § 5106 (a), to recover its assigned no-fault billing charges the insurer’s untimely disclaimer does not preclude it from denying liability on a strict lack of coverage ground.
I am persuaded that an insurer, despite its failure to reject a claim within the 30-day period prescribed by Insurance Law § 5106 (a) and 11 NYCRR 65.15 (g) (3), may assert a lack of coverage defense premised on the fact or founded belief that the automobile policy was void ab initio for fraudulent misrepresentations made in the application for the policy. The denial of liability based upon lack of coverage within the insurance agreement, as framed in part by the litigation strategy and nature of the instant dispute, is distinguishable from disclaimer attempts based on a breach of a policy condition (see, Zappone v Home Ins. Co., supra, 55 NY2d, at 136-137; contrast, Presbyterian Hosp. v Maryland Cas. Co., 90 NY2d 274 [decided today]). Precedent and logical analysis support the extension of the Zappone exception here. Strict compliance with the time requirements of both the statute and regulations may be obviated and the preclusion remedy rendered unavailable when denial of claims is premised on a lack of coverage.
As held by the Supreme Court of South Carolina in Government Employess Insurance Company v Chavis, 254 S.C. 507, the insurer did not have any duty or obligation to investigate the truthfulness of the insured’s statements made in his insurance application and having no prior knowledge that the insured’s statements were untruthful did not constitute a waiver and did not estop the insurer from rescinding the policy for fraudulent misrepresentation. The insurer met its burden to not only show that the insured’s statements were untrue, but that their falsity was known to him, that they were material to the risk and relied upon by the insurer, and that they were made with intent to mislead and defraud the insurer.
Rescission is not merely a termination of a contractual obligation but is the abrogation or undoing of it from the beginning which seeks to create a situation the same as if no contract ever existed. It was also established that prior to the institution of this lawsuit the insured, Jerome MsDowell, accepted a full refund of the policy premium that he had paid to the insurer.
Therefore, the above captioned lawsuit is dismissed with prejudice.
Dated: July 12, 2018
Hon. Armando Montano
Justice, Supreme Court