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Damages for late payment of insurance claims: some practical aspects

The effects of an insured loss on an insured’s business can be financially devastating. It is in those times of need that policyholders turn to their insurers for help. The longer a policyholder goes without that help the worse the policyholder’s financial situation can become.

The Enterprise Act 2016 amended the Insurance Act 2015 (the “Act”) to create a new right for insureds to claim damages against their insurers for the late payment of insurance claims.

This article revisits this new right in a practical context with a view to encouraging all interested parties to bear its provisions in mind when dealing with insurance claims that have, or may, run on for far too long.

Damages for late payment

Section 13A of the Act now provides that it is an implied term in all contracts of insurance entered into from 4 May 2017 that payment of sums due under an insurance contract must occur within a ‘reasonable time’.

There is no guidance on what is meant by ‘reasonable time’. We wait for the courts to consider that question in this context. For now, we can say with certainty that what is reasonable in the context of contracts of insurance very much turns on its facts. Whilst not an exhaustive list, consideration will be given to the type of insurance contract, its complexity, any regulatory or third party issues and the conduct of all parties. In other words, some claims will reasonably take longer than others to investigate.

Others may be delayed as a result of the unreasonable conduct of insurers, however. It is in those cases that policyholders should seek to rely upon the right created by section 13A.

Whilst the right can be relied upon even where the claim has been paid, a decision as to whether or not to pursue such a claim should be made quickly. A one year limitation period applies and the clock commences from the date that payment is made in full.

The insured’s burden

An insured will be required to prove that it has suffered actual loss as a result of the delay by its insurers.

In addition, the insured must demonstrate that its loss was reasonably foreseeable at the time the policy was entered into. That presents a higher burden than demonstrating foreseeability from the date of the breach and may also have the practical effect of limiting any recovery for late payment.

Furthermore, there is an obligation on insureds to mitigate losses caused by any delay. For example, this might include securing a line of credit during any period of delay to overcome any short term cash flow problems. In such circumstances insureds should make the insurer aware of the fact that additional lines of credit may have to be sourced contrary to the business’ intentions and solely as a result of the insurer’s delay and that any losses associated with that will be sought from the insurer under section 13A of the Act. The prospect of an increased exposure to the claim may spur the insurer into action.

Effects on insurer behaviour

Insurers now have to act expeditiously when investigating the merits of a claim under their policies in order to ensure that claims are settled in a ‘reasonable’ period of time. This may present opportunities for insurers to reflect on their claims handling processes and technical skills. Such outcomes can only be seen as a positive effect of the new remedy.

Disputes may take some time to resolve and the loss caused to a policyholder whilst an unsound declinature or restriction on cover is unwound may fall within the scope of section 13A. In other words, handling claims efficiently and ensuring that claims adjusters reach the correct conclusions in a reasonable period of time (and putting in place systems and training to achieve those outcomes) will: (a) ensure that insurers avoid this additional unnecessary exposure to claims liabilities; and (b) ensure that policyholders receive the cover to which they are entitled in a timeframe to be reasonably expected.

Insurers may also be more inclined to make early commercial decisions in order to resolve claims more swiftly than a full coverage investigation or litigation might allow.

Contracting out

The insurer and insured can agree between themselves to contract out of section 13A of the Act. Such a clause would be enforced by the Courts providing that it is clear, unambiguous and brought to the policyholder’s attention before the contract is agreed.

We mention this simply to emphasise that brokers and policyholders should check their policy wordings carefully to ensure that: (a) there are no such contracting out provisions; and (b) if there are, those provisions preserve a right to claim damages for the late payment of a claim and are more advantageous than the right conferred by section 13A.

An attempt by an insurer to contract out of the provision would amount to a request to be at liberty to unreasonably delay in payment of claims. That is quite a brazen request that insureds are unlikely to want to accede to.

Comment

The usefulness of section 13A of the Act to policyholders is its ability to be deployed in communications with an insurer as an incentive to resolve claims more quickly. Even if the complexity of a claim merits a period of significant investigation by the insurer, reference to section 13A, alongside drawing an insurer’s attention to financial loss caused by the delayed payment itself, may at the very least elicit an interim payment. Interim payments can in themselves keep the wolf from the door.

For those few cases where insurers are not persuaded to act by their increased exposure to damages arising from late payment, we look forward to seeing the Courts intervene to underline to insurers, at last, that delay does not pay.

James Breese is an associate at Fenchurch Law