On a warm summer’s evenin’, on a train bound for nowhere . . . is a dispute over insuring a stranger’s life

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Gambling

I know it is a little obvious, but I couldn't write a post about gambling without using lyrics from "The Gambler." Fortunately, the case this post discusses — Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada v. U.S. Bank National Association — is anything but obvious. Sun Life involved gambling on another person's life but not in a Deer Hunter, Russian roulette kind of way. In Sun Life, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit addressed the enforceability of an insurance policy that insured a stranger's life.

In Sun Life, Judge Posner began his decision by discussing the common law principle that "forbids a person to own an insurance policy that insures someone else's life unless the policy owner has an insurable interest in that life." A wife can have an insurable interest in her husband's or children's lives, a creditor can have an insurable interest in a debtor's life, but "you cannot own an insurance policy on the life of a stranger who you happen to know is in poor health and likely to die soon." The reason is that, by doing so, you are essentially gambling on another person's life, and gambling contracts are generally unenforceable as a matter of public policy. 

Continue reading “On a warm summer’s evenin’, on a train bound for nowhere . . . is a dispute over insuring a stranger’s life”

Rova Farms – From Born to Run to Bad Faith

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

SpringsteenI am in the middle of reading “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. I am about one-third of the way through and so far, so good. I just finished reading about “the only full-scale truly scary bar brawl [of Bruce and the band’s] club lives.” It happened in Rova Farms, a “Russian social club on the outskirts of town.” (In Springsteen’s life, like in his songs, the important things always seem to happen on the outskirts of town.) The brawl started right before the band broke into “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” and ended with the police being called and several people being taken out on stretchers.

Like nearly all New Jersey lawyers, I know Rova Farms as a thing – a “Rova Farms letter” or a “Rova Farms claim” – not a place. It was interesting to read a story about the place behind the thing. For the uninitiated, Rova Farms Resort v. Investors Ins. Co. of America, was a case involving a visitor to Rova Farms who was injured, not in a bar brawl, but from diving into a shallow portion of a lake on the resort. He sustained serious spinal cord injuries and was paralyzed. The resort’s insurance carrier refused to tender the full, $50,000 policy limit to settle the claim. The case went to trial and the jury returned a $225,000 verdict. The resort then sued its carrier for the full amount of the judgment, alleging that it acted in bad faith by not settling the claim within the policy limits.

The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed, holding that an insurer’s bad-faith failure to settle within policy limits renders it liable for the full amount of the judgment, including any portion in excess of the policy limits. As a result of this decision, defendants in New Jersey will usually send a “Rova Farms letter” to their carriers when a plaintiff offers to settle a case within policy limits. The letter puts the carrier on notice that, if it does not settle within the policy limits, the insured will look to the carrier to pay the entire judgment. Of course, the obligation to do so only arises when the carrier acts in bad faith, but, needless to say, this letter tends to change the dynamic between insured and insurer.   

Back to Bruce . . . As far as New Jersey courts are concerned, Rova Farms is far more popular than Springsteen. The case has been cited more than 3,800 times in New Jersey alone. A search of all state and federal court opinions for Bruce Springsteen yields 87 hits, and only 5 of those are from New Jersey courts. Local hero indeed.

Latest Round In Fight Over Rare Double Eagle “Coins” Goes To Government

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Double eagle (pd)
I have written before about Langbord v. United States Department of the Treasury. (Click here and here for the prior posts.) This is a case about ten, 1933 Double Eagle coins, which I described in a prior post as follows:

[The Double Eagle] is a $20 gold piece that was designed by famed artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens after he was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to help beautify American coinage. Almost a half million Double Eagles were minted, but none were ever officially released into circulation. Shortly after they were minted, newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, seeking to stem a run on the banks, issued Executive Order 6102, which made it illegal to "hoard" large amounts of gold. Accordingly, the U.S. Mint was ordered to stop issuing gold coins and to melt down any gold coins in its possession, including the Double Eagle. As part of this process, two Double Eagles were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for posterity, but the rest were supposed to have been melted down.

However, not all of the coins were melted down. Around 20 were smuggled out of the U.S. Mint. Over the years, nine were located by, or returned to, the Secret Service. Another one was seized by the Secret Service in a sting operation at the Waldorf Astoria after the owner, Stephen Fenton, was lured there by agents posing as potential buyers. (It was later stored in the World Trade Center but was removed just a few months before the 9/11 terror attacks, just one of the interesting facts in this case.) After Fenton sued, the government agreed to auction off the coin and split the proceeds with the owner. It sold for $7.6 million, more than twice the world record for any coin sold at auction at the time.

Shortly after the auction, Joan Langbord notified the government that she had found 10 Double Eagles in a safe-deposit box belonging to her father, Israel Switt. (According to the government, however, this discovery was hardly fortuitous. The government claims that all of the Double Eagles that escaped its control went through Switt's hands. It claims that he worked with a corrupt cashier at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia to smuggle Gold Eagles out of the Mint before they could be melted down.) The lawyer representing Ms. Langbord and her sons, the same one who represented Fenton, proposed a sale of the 10 coins like the one agreed to with Fenton. The government  indicated it was "amenable," so the Langbords sent the coins to the U.S. Mint for inspection. After the coins were authenticated, the Langbords requested that they be returned, but the U.S. Mint refused. The Langbords responded by submitting a "seized asset claim" demanding the return of the coins. When they were not returned, the Langbords sued.

Continue reading “Latest Round In Fight Over Rare Double Eagle “Coins” Goes To Government”

Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Sky zone (pd)In the interest of full disclosure, I have taken my kids to the Sky Zone Trampoline Park near our home and we have always had a great time. For those who have never been, these types of places are full of trampolines, but not your parents' trampolines (assuming your parents had trampolines and your experience with them was slightly better than the children of Springfield). They are huge facilities where you can "free jump," play dodge ball on trampolines, use trampolines to dunk a basketball, jump off trampolines into foam pits, etc. As you might expect, before you are allowed to jump, you need to sign a waiver, usually electronically either before you get to the facility or when you get there. I have done this on behalf of myself and my kids and of course, being a lawyer, read each word carefully as my kids were excitedly asking me, on a seemingly endless loop, when we could start jumping. In a recent decision, Defina v. Go Ahead and Jump 1, LLC d/b/a Sky Zone Indoor Trampoline Park, the Appellate Division considered whether the arbitration provision contained in this waiver was enforceable. It ruled that it was not, which is perhaps not surprising given the recent trend in New Jersey courts regarding the enforceability of arbitration agreements. (I wrote about this trend here and here.)

In Defina, plaintiff was a minor who, through her parents, sued Sky Zone for injuries allegedly suffered at the facility. Before using the facility, plaintiff's father signed a "Participation Agreement, Release and Assumption of Risk." Among other things, the agreement required parties to release, discharge, and hold Sky Zone harmless for  any claims arising out of Sky Zone's "ordinary negligence." The waiver did not preclude lawsuits arising out of Sky Zone's alleged gross negligence or willful and wanton misconduct, but it did require that those claims be arbitrated pursuant to a separate arbitration provision, which provided:

If  there  are  any  disputes  regarding  this agreement,  I  on  behalf  of  myself  and/or  my child(ren)  hereby  waive  any  right  I  and/or my child(ren) may have to a trial and agree that  such  dispute  shall  be brought  within one  year  of  the  date  of  this  Agreement  and will  be  determined  by  binding  arbitration before  one  arbitrator  to  be  administered  by JAMS    pursuant    to    its    Comprehensive Arbitration  Rules  and  Procedures.  I  further agree  that  the  arbitration  will take  place solely  in  the  state  of  Texas  and  that  the substantive  law  of  Texas  shall  apply.

The arbitration provision also provided that anyone who ignored the provision and sued in court would be liable to Sky Zone for $5,000 in liquidated damages. Finally, the agreement also contained a provision, in bold type, which provided that, by signing the agreement, an individual "may be found by a court of law to have waived [his or her] right to maintain a lawsuit against [Sky Zone]."

Continue reading “Bounce Around The (Court)Room: Trampoline Park’s Arbitration Provision Deemed Unenforceable”

NJ Supreme Court: LLP Cannot Be Converted To General Partnership For Failing To Maintain Liability Insurance

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

NJ Supreme Court (pd)On June 23, 2016, the New Jersey Supreme Court released its decision in Mortgage Grader, Inc. v. Ward & Olivo, LLP, a case in which I had the privilege of representing the New Jersey State Bar Association as amicus curiae. (I previously wrote about the case here.) As discussed below, the Supreme Court agreed with our arguments. 

In Mortgage Grader, a former client sued the defendant law firm and each of its partners after the firm dissolved. While the firm had maintained professional liability insurance while it was actively practicing, it did not purchase a "tail" policy to cover claims that arose after it dissolved. The trial court held that this violated Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3), which requires attorneys practicing as an LLP to "obtain and maintain in good standing one or more policies of lawyers' professional liability insurance which shall insure the [LLP] against liability imposed upon it by law for damages resulting from any claim made against the [LLP] by its clients." Accordingly, the trial court held that the individual partners were not shielded from liability as they would normally be as members of an LLP and were instead vicariously liable for their partners' negligence. In other words, the trial court effectively converted the LLP to a general partnership because it failed to maintain liability insurance. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the trial court did not have the authority to strip the individual partners of their liability protections under either Rule 1:21-1C(a)(3) or the Uniform Partnership Act.

The NJSBA asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to affirm the Appellate Division's decision. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that: (1) the insurance requirements for LLPs did not extend to the period when a firm is "winding up" its business — i.e., when it is collecting receivables but no longer providing legal services; and (2) even if they did, an LLP could not be converted to a general partnership as a "sanction" for failing to maintain liability insurance. Justice Albin wrote a separate opinion, concurring with the judgment of the majority, but suggesting that the Court Rules be amended to provide that an LLP would lose its liability protection if it failed to meet the insurance requirements, and to require LLPs to purchase tail insurance for six years following their dissolution. 

The Supreme Court's opinion can be found here.