In a case that is likely to be appealed, Judge Deborah Chasanow of the District Court re-affirmed that hard cases make, if not bad law, then strained law. The case, Valley Forge Life Insurance Co. v. Liebowitz, involved a $2 Million life insurance policy.
Bruce Liebowitz was married to Shelley Liebowitz. His father, Howard Liebowitz, is an independent insurance agent. In the late spring of 2000, Bruce applied for a life insurance policy from Valley Forge with a death benefit of $2 Million. His father was the issuing agent. The policy was formally issued on November 1, 2000. Bruce died of esophageal cancer on September 5, 2002.
The application for the policy directly asked about the insured's foreign travel, both past and prospective. Bruce had traveled extensively in the Mideast and had lived in Spain in the two years prior to the date of the application and continued to travel extensively after the application was submitted. However, on the application he denied any foreign travel in the two years prior to the date of the application and he denied any plans to travel out of the country in the future. After his death, Valley Forge brought this action alleging that Bruce had made a material misrepresentation with respect to the policy application and requested that the policy be declared a nullity.
On cross motions for summary judgment, the Court ruled in favor of Mrs. Liebowitz, holding that (i) Howard was the agent of Valley Forge, (ii) that Howard knew of the falsity of the statements on the applications, (iii) Howard's knowledge could be imputed to Valley Forge, and therefore (iv) Valley Forge was estopped from denying coverage due to Bruce's false statements concerning his foreign travel. The Court also ruled that the statements on the application were representations, not warranties, and that Valley Forge, due to its knowledge of the misstatements (via imputation from Howard) waived its right to rescind the contract. The Court did not address the question of whether the misstatements were material, perhaps because that would have required a weighing of conflicting facts, taking it out of summary judgment territory.
Cases like this give insurers a bad reputation. Even though Bruce essentially lied on his application, it is unlikely that Valley Forge would have refused to issue the policy even had it known about Bruce's extensive foreign travel, although there may have been a slight surcharge added to the premium, a trivial amount in the context of this case. Moreover, Bruce's death can in no way be traced to his foreign travel. Going one step further, had Bruce lived another 55 days or so, the policy would likely have become incontestable. Thus, under the circumstances of the case, it appears that Valley Forge was asking to be relieved of its obligations under the contract due to misrepresentations that caused it no material harm.
On the other hand, Howard and Bruce do not present an altogether savory picture. At the least, Howard failed to honor his fiduciary duties to Valley Forge. However, the claimant here was a young widow who was left to care for the toddler child of the deceased. There were no facts that would indicate that she had been in any way complicit in a scheme to cheat the insurer. Under these circumstances, the gut equities clearly favored her and the judgment followed.