Supreme Court releases eagerly awaited judgment on assigned claims

Decision

The New Zealand Supreme Court has released its eagerly awaited judgment in Xu & Anor v IAG [2019] NZSC 68.  The Court ruled in the insurer’s favour, upholding the longstanding principle that an insured’s entitlement to the reinstatement of a damaged property to a “when new” condition is not assignable to a purchaser of the property without the insurer’s agreement.  The Court held that the purchaser was entitled only to indemnity value.

The judgment is significant because it will affect many ‘on-sold’ insurance claims by purchasers of earthquake-damaged properties.  Where the policy wording provides that the insured may elect to reinstate, the right to do so is personal to the insured and cannot be assigned to a purchaser of the property without the insurer’s consent.  Purchasers of damaged properties in those circumstances will not be entitled to claim the cost of reinstatement from the insurer or require the insurer to reinstate and will instead be limited to the “indemnity value” of the loss.  In many cases the indemnity value is likely to be significantly lower than the cost of reinstatement.

Facts

The case involved a home owned by Mr and Mrs Barlow, which they insured under a standard replacement policy issued by IAG.  The policy entitled the Barlows:

  1. To be paid the actual costs of repairing their home to its condition when new if they reinstated the property; or
  2. If they did not reinstate it, to be paid the lesser of the amount of the indemnity value of the loss or the estimated cost of restoring their home to its pre-loss condition.

The Barlows’ home was damaged in the Canterbury earthquakes.  Three years later, in 2014, they entered into an agreement to sell the property.  They assigned all their rights in respect of their insurance claim to the purchasers.

The purchasers sued IAG claiming that they were entitled to the actual costs of reinstating the home.  IAG accepted that the right to indemnity value was assignable, but said that the right to reinstate was personal to the Barlows and could not be assigned without IAG’s agreement.

Decision on assignment

IAG’s position was consistent with the Court of Appeal’s decision in Bryant v Primary Industries Insurance Co Limited, which the Supreme Court acknowledged as the leading case.  That case confirmed the rule that an insured is not entitled to assign a reinstatement benefit where that benefit is contingent on the insured personally carrying out the works, without the insurer’s agreement.

Although the Supreme Court expressed some reservations, it declined to overrule or distinguish Bryant and confirmed that Bryant is correct in its statement of legal principle.  One point of interest for legal scholars is that the Court expressed the view that “it may be better to accept that replacement insurance is an exception to the indemnity principle”.  This comment was made in the context of the reasons for the rule in Bryant, one of which was that the Court of Appeal considered that the indemnity principle (which says that the insured should not be put in a better position than it was in before the loss) could be rationalised with replacement insurance (which may result in the insured receiving a new item that is more valuable).  The Supreme Court found the principles of moral hazard and the personal nature of the reinstatement entitlement to be more convincing reasons not to overrule Bryant.

The Supreme Court held that the wording of the IAG policy meant that the original insured must carry out the reinstatement to become entitled to the replacement benefit.  References to the insured were to the Barlows and could not be interpreted as references to their assignees.

The judgment was a 3:2 decision as two of the Supreme Court judges dissented.  They would have held that the assignee-purchasers had received a valid assignment of the replacement benefits under the policy on the basis that the Barlows had an accrued right to those benefits after the earthquakes, and that the assignee-purchasers could fulfil the condition of restoring the home.  In their view, there was nothing so obviously personal in the reinstatement condition in the policy that only the Barlows could undertake the reinstatement and claim the benefit.  They would have overruled Bryant.

Sale and Purchase Condition

The Supreme Court also addressed a secondary issue, which was the meaning and effect of Condition 2 of the policy.  All five members of the Supreme Court were unanimous on the result on this point.

Condition 2 was headed “Insurance during sale and purchase”.  It provided that, in some circumstances, the purchaser of a property could bring a claim under the vendor’s insurance policy.  The purchasers argued that their claim fell within Condition 2 so that they were entitled to claim under it, irrespective of the validity of the purported assignment of the replacement benefit.  The Supreme Court held that Condition 2 did not assist the purchasers because it applied only to damage that occurred after a purchaser had entered into an unconditional contract for sale and purchase of a property and before the settlement of that transaction.   In the present case, the purchasers had entered into the sale and purchase agreement years after the damage had occurred.   The purpose of Special Condition 2 was to protect the purchaser of a property who entered into an unconditional agreement before the damage was suffered.

Effect of the decision

The decision will be well received by insurers, many of whom are dealing with assignees of insurance claims who are claiming a reinstatement entitlement.  Many of these claimants will now have to accept that their claims are likely to be worth significantly less, as they are limited to indemnity value.

In a number of these claims, the original insureds were satisfied with the repairs, yet assignees have made claims and issued court proceedings asserting that they were inadequate, sometimes with the support of claims consultants or litigation funders.  Insurers view many of these assigned claims as unjustified and opportunistic.  Where repairs have been carried out, the Supreme Court’s decision means that it is likely to be more difficult for assignees to assert that an increased amount ought to be payable where their claim is limited to indemnity value.

The Supreme Court observes that what constitutes indemnity value will sometimes be difficult to determine.  This will likely depend upon the circumstances of each case.  The Supreme Court earlier provided guidance in Prattley Enterprises Ltd v Vero Insurance New Zealand Ltd [2017] 1 NZLR 352.Where a building is destroyed by an insured event and is not to be reinstated, the most obvious basis for calculating indemnity value is its market value.  This will normally be less than the cost of reinstatement on a new-for-old basis, particularly where the building was old or in a state of disrepair before the loss.  Where a claim is for the cost of repair or reinstatement, the estimated costs, less a betterment allowance or a deduction from the repair cost to represent the depreciated condition of the insured property immediately before the loss, may be the indemnity value.  There may also be instances where a repair, or a complete or substantial reinstatement, does not result in betterment.  In those cases indemnity value may be the same as reinstatement costs without deduction.

Purchasers of earthquake damaged buildings will be disappointed if they purchased in the expectation of settling the insurance claim for the property on a reinstatement basis without the insurer’s agreement.  While some assignee-purchasers may reflect upon whether they have been properly advised, many sale and purchase agreements were entered into without an assignment in place and the assignment of insurance claims was recorded as an afterthought, sometimes upon or after settlement, or even after the issuance of legal proceedings.

We anticipate that a number of Canterbury earthquake proceedings by assignees will be settled or discontinued as a result of the Supreme Court’s judgment.

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