Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act (IFCA) protects policyholders from insurers’ unreasonable refusal to pay covered losses or provide insurance policy benefits. Unfortunately, many insurers include fine print in the insurance policy contract that supposedly provides the policyholder cannot sue the insurer once certain time period has passed since the loss. These time periods are typically much, much shorter than statutes of limitations, and are often as short as one year.
Insurers often claim this language lets them off the hook for violating policyholders’ rights under IFCA or other laws once enough time has passed. This is particularly problematic because insurers often drag out disputed insurance claims for as long as possible. Accepting these insurers’ arguments would allow insurers to immunize themselves from suit by simply stalling until the deadline runs.
Can they do that?
Fortunately for Washington State policyholders, our Court of Appeals recently said “no way.” On January 13, 2020, the Court of Appeals decided West Beach Condominium v. Commonwealth Insurance Company of America, ruling that the deadline in the insurer’s fine print could not bar the policyholder from pursuing IFCA and similar consumer protection claims.
West Beach, a West Seattle condo owners’ association, had insurance coverage for the condo complex through Commonwealth Insurance. West Beach found substantial water damage in the condo complex and made an insurance claim with Commonwealth on September 26, 2016.
In March of 2017, Commonwealth denied coverage. Commonwealth claimed that the water damage had been happening for the past ten years. Commonwealth’s insurance policy contained fine print requiring West Beach to sue within a year after the loss, i.e., within a year after the initial water damage.
West Beach sued, alleging that Commonwealth breached the insurance policy contract. West Beach also sued under IFCA and Washington’s Consumer Protection ACT (CPA). The lower court dismissed the entire lawsuit because the claimed damage occurred more than one year before West Beach filed suit.
The Court of Appeals reversed and ordered that the lower court should not have dismissed the IFCA and CPA claims. Commonwealth claimed on appeal that by failing to file suit by the contractual deadline, West Beach gave up its right to any insurance coverage. Therefore, Commonwealth argued, West Beach had no right to bring IFCA or CPA claims because it had given up its insurance coverage.
The Court of Appeals determined the suit limitation clause only prevented West Beach from filing a very specific type of claim for breach of the insurance policy contract. But, the court ruled, Commonwealth could not use the contractual deadline to immunize itself from suit under IFCA and the CPA. These statutes give policyholders rights that do not go away merely because the policyholder missed a deadline buried in the insurance policy.
The West Beach decision is important because it preserves policyholders’ rights under Washington’s consumer protection statutes. These laws exist to protect Washington policyholders from sharp practices. Allowing insurers to exempt themselves from these laws simply by adding arbitrary deadlines to their insurance policy fine print would allow insurers to circumvent these protections by using the very type of sharp practice these laws exist to prevent.