Court of Appeals Confirms Insured Can Reform Policy Language to Provide The Coverage The Insured Purchased

The Washington Court of Appeals recently answered an important question for policyholders: what if your agent sells you coverage but the insurance policy fine print fails to reflect the coverage you thought you purchased?

On November 4, 2019, the Washington Court of Appeals decided Digitalalchemy, LLC v. John Hancock Insurance Company (USA). The court held Digitalalchemy could sue John Hancock for denying coverage under a life insurance policy because, even though the policy language supported John Hancock’s denial, Digitalalchemy had purchased broader coverage than the policy reflected.

Digitalalchemy bought John Hancock’s life insurance policy to cover its key executives. When buying the policy, John Hancock’s agent agreed to backdate the insurance coverage’s start date. That means the policy would effectively begin providing coverage before the date Digitalalchemy purchased the policy. However, due to a mistake, the policy language failed to reflect the backdated start date.

One of the covered executives died by suicide, and Digitalalchemy made a claim under the policy. John Hancock denied coverage under the policy’s suicide exclusion. The policy excluded coverage if the insured died by suicide within two days of the “issue date.” Because the parties agreed to backdate the policy start date, the insured died after the two-year exclusion period, and John Hancock should have paid the claim. But because the policy failed to reflect the backdating, John Hancock denied coverage under the suicide exclusion.

The court agreed with John Hancock that the policy language did not backdate the start date. However, the court also found that Digitalalchemy sufficiently alleged the parties had agreed to backdate the policy and that the failure to reflect the backdating in the policy was a mistake. Accordingly, the court agreed Ditigalalchemy could argue the policy should be reformed to reflect the backdated start date because that was what both parties had intended.

That ruling is important because it is another recent case confirming insureds can still obtain recourse if they purchase coverage but the insurer writes a policy failing to accurately reflect the purchased coverage.

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