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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: 100 cases every policyholder needs to know. #3 (The Ugly). Pioneer Concrete

27 February 2018
By Michael Hayes

Welcome to the latest in the series of blogs from Fenchurch Law: 100 cases every policyholder needs to know. An opinionated and practical guide to the most important insurance decisions relating to the London / English insurance markets, all looked at from a pro-policyholder perspective.

Some cases are correctly decided and positive for policyholders. We celebrate those cases as The Good.

Some cases are, in our view, bad for policyholders, wrongly decided, and in need of being overturned. We highlight those decisions as The Bad.

Other cases are bad for policyholders but seem (even to our policyholder-tinted eyes) to be correctly decided. Those are cases that can trip up even the most honest policyholder with the most genuine claim. We put the hazard lights on those cases as The Ugly.

At Fenchurch Law we love the insurance market. But we love policyholders just a little bit more.

#3 (The Ugly)

Pioneer Concrete (UK) Ltd v National Employers Mutual General Insurance Association Ltd [1985] 2 All ER 395

As Bingham J put it: “this action raises one question of some interest and importance in the law of insurance.”

The issue here was: does an insurer have to show that it has suffered prejudice, when relying on a breach of a condition precedent?

Pioneer Concrete (UK) Ltd (“the Claimants”) sued East London Ltd (“the Insured”), after they had negligently installed some machinery ten months earlier.

The Insured had a public liability policy with National Employers Mutual General Insurance Association Ltd (“the Insurers”), which contained a condition precedent requiring them to give written notice to the Insurers of “any accident or claim or proceedings immediately the same shall have come to the knowledge of the Insured or his representative” (‘the Condition’).

The Claimants obtained a judgment against the Insured, who then became insolvent. The Claimants then claimed against the Insurers under the Third Party (Rights Against Insurers) Act 1930.

Although the Insurers knew about the original allegations, they said they had not been made aware of the proceedings, and therefore relied on a breach of the Condition to avoid paying the claim. The Claimants argued that the claim should be covered, as the Insurers had not suffered any prejudice.

The decision

It was held, dismissing the Claimants’ claim, that a breach of a condition precedent to liability, however trivial, will entitle an insurer to escape liability for a particular claim. It was not necessary for the Insurers to show they had suffered any prejudice as a result of the breach.

The case laid to rest a line of authorities indicating that insurers could not rely on a breach of a condition precedent when the breach caused no prejudice to them. In our view, this decision was extremely harsh for the policyholder, as the Insurers had always known about the incident, and even the claim itself. While we recognise that the law ought to make a distinction between a condition precedent and a ‘mere condition’, arguably it was open to the Court in Pioneer Concrete to have held that an insurer needed to establish at least some more than minimal prejudice before the draconian effect of a condition precedent was triggered.

Lastly, a point worth mentioning is that, although the Insurance Act 2015 has sought to level the playing field between policyholders and insurers, it is likely that a breach of a condition precedent, however innocuous, would still give an insurer a complete defence to a claim.