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Understanding the Impact of OFAC Advisory Notices on Insurance Policies

One of the most unusual notices that exists in many policies is the OFAC Advisory Notice. This notice, which can function to freeze or block an insurance contract, is rarely considered by claims professionals or insureds. So, what is OFAC?

OFAC stands for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is a financial intelligence and enforcement agency operating under the U.S. Treasury Department. The Division of Foreign Assets Control (DFAC), the precursor to OFAC, was created in the 1950s, when China entered the Korean War. DFAC blocked Chinese and North Korean assets that were subject to US jurisdiction. Thereafter, following a 1962 Treasury Department Order, DFAC officially became OFAC. Yet, despite OFACs presence as a governmental entity for over 70 years, little is known about it. Even less is known about OFAC’s relationship to the insurance industry.

In 2018, OFAC mandated an advisory notice restricting claims activities and payments when any person or entity benefiting from the subject insurance policy has violated US sanctions law or is a Specially Designated National and Blocked Person under OFAC. Included in the Specially Designated National and Blocked Persons list are various foreign agents, front organizations, terrorists, terrorist organizations, and narcotics traffickers.

In essence, the advisory mandates that insurers are restricted from issuing payments on claims where a designated entity is involved. Per the terms of the advisory this could include entities that are subject to foreign trade embargoes or sanctions.

Based upon our research, the OFAC advisory has been construed only a few times in the insurance industry. However, there has been increased discussions regarding this notice due to heightened worldwide tensions and international sanctions placed on certain countries, such as Russia, as a result of military activity. Further, the advisory notice would apply to any business or entity that is in violation of human rights, is subject to trade embargoes or sanctions, or is engaged in narcotics trafficking.

Although the advisory notice provides that the insured’s policy can be frozen or blocked if they are found to be in violation of OFAC regulations, neither OFAC nor case law provides clear direction as to what those exact ramifications are. This issue, however, should be considered in regard to any claim where such a designated entity may be involved, either as an insured or as the beneficiary of insurance payment.

Insurers who issue cyber coverage likely face the largest impact from the OFAC advisory notice. In fact, in 2020 the OFAC issued an Advisory on Potential Sanctions Risks for Facilitating Ransomware Payments and issued an updated Advisory regarding same on September 21, 2021. That advisory, a copy of which is also linked to this newsletter, provides that facilitating ransomware payments demanded as a result of malicious cyber attacks may violate the OFAC advisory with respect to payments to those who have violated U.S. sanctions law or are Specially Dedicated national and Blocked Persons. The 2021 Advisory further provides as follows:

OFAC may impose civil penalties for sanctions violations based on strict liability, meaning that a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction may be held civilly liable even if such person did not know or have reason to know that it was engaging in a transaction that was prohibited under sanctions laws and regulations administered by OFAC.

In other words, an insurer who issues cyber coverage runs the very real risk of running afoul of OFAC regulations by issuing payment for any cyber ransom attack without first getting permission from the OFAC. As a result of these risks, insurers offering this type of coverage would benefit significantly by putting into place policies and protocols to ensure compliance with OFAC regulations and to ensure that proper reporting and communication with OFAC take place prior to issuing payment for any cyber ransom attack.

The attorneys at Lether Law Group have been providing insurers with coverage advice and recommendations for more than 30 years. Our experience includes addressing cyber claims and coverage issues under cyber policies.  If you’d like to discuss this particular coverage issue or other insurance related issues arising in the ever-changing world of insurance, please feel free to contact our office.

Washington State Supreme Court Clarifies Law on “Reasonable Investigation” and Determination of “Reasonable” Charges for Personal Injury Protection Claims

On February 15, 2024, the Washington State Supreme Court issued its decision in Schiff v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company, et al., Case No. 101576-3, which examined “… what an insurer must do to meet the ‘reasonable investigation’ requirement and the requirement to pay ‘all reasonable and necessary’ medical expenses” under Washington’s Personal Injury Protection (“PIP”) statutes and Washington law.

The decision arose out of a suit filed by Dr. Stann Schiff alleging that the insurers’ practice of reducing provider bills based on computer-generated calculations violated Washington law.  It was undisputed that Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company (collectively “Liberty”), used a third-party database called FAIR Health to determine reasonableness of a medical provides charges when Liberty received medical bills from an insured under either a PIP or a MedPay (supplemental medical payment coverage) claim. [1]

The trial court denied both parties’ attempts at summary judgment and the Court of Appeals accepted discretionary review. The Court of Appeal, relying on its prior holding in Folweiler Chiropractic, P.S. v. American Family Insurance Co, 5 Wn. App. 2d 829, 429 P.3d 813 (2018) reversed the trial court’s denial of Dr. Schiff’s motion. The Court of Appeals reasoned, based on the Folweiler decision, that: 1) it was an unfair practice under the Washington Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”) to not conduct an individualized assessment of a medical bill; and that 2) RCW 48.22.095(1)(a) and RCW 4.22.005(7) required an individualized assessment.

The database provided information for an insurer to compare charges for specific medical treatments in a geographical area and to determine the percentiles of those charges.  Liberty apparently had an established practice of paying 100% of a medical provider’s bill if it was below the 80th percentile for the procedure/treatment in the geographical area. However, if the bill exceeded the 80th percentile, Liberty would reduce the charges to the 80th percentile charge and pay that amount. It was undisputed that Liberty did not conduct individualized investigations with respect to the bills at issue, but instead relied upon 80th percentile information from the database.

The trial court denied both parties’ attempts at summary judgment and the Court of Appeals accepted discretionary review. The Court of Appeal, relying on its prior holding in Folweiler Chiropractic, P.S. v. American Family Insurance Co, 5 Wn. App. 2d 829, 429 P.3d 813 (2018) reversed the trial court’s denial of Dr. Schiff’s motion. The Court of Appeals reasoned, based on the Folweiler decision, that: 1) it was an unfair practice under the Washington Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”) to not conduct an individualized assessment of a medical bill; and that 2) RCW 48.22.095(1)(a) and RCW 4.22.005(7) required an individualized assessment.

The Supreme Court rejected the Court of Appeals’ analysis and overturned the Court of Appeals. In doing so, the Supreme Court effectively also overturned the Folweiler decision’s individualized assessment requirement. In discussing the Folweiler decision, the Supreme Court stated and held as follows:

Though the Court of Appeals cited to the relevant statutes and regulations, it failed to explain how they mandate an inquiry into the qualifications of the medical provider and did not cite any case to bolster its interpretation. The PIP statutes and the insurance code do not have any express requirement that the insurers look specifically at the qualifications of a medical provider to determine the reasonableness of the charge.

Schiff Opinion at 12 (emphasis added).

Instead, the Supreme Court held that the insurance code: 1) places the responsibility on an insurer to determine whether to deny, limit, or terminate medical benefits if the insurer determines the claim is not reasonable or necessary; 2) that the code tasks insurers to conduct their own reasonable investigation; 2) that the code requires insurers to create their own reasonable standards for promptly investigating a claim.

After reviewing the Washington Administrative Code (“WAC”) and the properties of the FAIR Health database, the Supreme Court held that “Comparing charges for the same treatment in the same geographic area is relevant to the determination of reasonableness.” Schiff Opinion at 14.

As a result of this conclusion, and in light of out-of-state authority addressing the same issues, the Supreme Court ultimately held in favor of Liberty as follows:

We hold that the 80th percentile practice and the use of the FAIR Health database is not unfair or unreasonable and does not violate the CPA or the PIP requirements to establish standards under which reasonable charges for medical procedures are determined.

Schiff Opinion at 16.

The Schiff decision effectively overturns the Folweiler decision and provides insurers with further clarity on their investigatory obligations and reasonableness determinations in PIP matters.  Insurers remain responsible for determining whether to deny, limit or terminate medical benefits where the insurer determines treatment was not reasonable or necessary. Insurers are also still required to conduct a reasonable investigation and develop reasonable standards to promptly investigate claims.

As the Schiff decision makes clear, insurers can safely continue to rely on databases such as the FAIR Health database to determine whether a provider’s charges are reasonable and are not required to individually investigate and vet each provider when making that determination as part of that process.

The attorneys at Lether Law Group have in excess of thirty-one years’ experience in defending and advising insurers on the handling of PIP claims. This experience includes handling claims and litigating insurance disputes in the state of Washington. Please do not hesitate to contact our office if you have any questions regarding the Schiff decision or any other insurance matter.

[1] The FAIR Health database was identified as an “independent, nonprofit, medical claim database.”

Oregon Supreme Court Unilaterally Creates “Negligence” Cause of Action Against Insurers

On December 29, 2023, the Oregon Supreme Court effectively created new bad faith liability exposure for insurers doing business in Oregon when it issued its opinion in Moody v. Or. Cmty. Credit Union, 371 Ore. 772, 2023 Ore. LEXIS 692 (2023). In Moody, an insured sued a life insurance company for breach of contract and negligence based on a denial of a claim for life insurance proceeds.

The Plaintiff’s husband was the named insured under a life insurance policy and was accidently shot and killed. At the time of his death, the decedent had marijuana in his system. The Plaintiff filed a claim, and the defendant insurer initially denied the claim because the decedent’s death purportedly fell within an exclusion for deaths caused by or resulting from being under the influence of a narcotic or other drug.

The Plaintiff brought suit alleging that the death was not caused by or resulting from the use of any drug. She alleged claims for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and negligence. Plaintiff sought both economic and non-economic damages including emotional distress damages. The extra-contractual claims were dismissed by the trial court and proceeded to an appeal. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the negligence claim and the Supreme Court accepted direct review.

On review, the Supreme Court framed the primary question as whether the Plaintiff could pursue a negligence per se claim. The Court clarified that, in Oregon, a negligence per se claim is shorthand for a negligence claim that otherwise exists where the standard of care is set forth in a statute or rule and violation of the statute or rules raises a presumption of negligence.

Under that framework, the Court first examined whether the Plaintiff had a legally protected interest sufficient to subject the Defendant to liability for emotional distress damages. In determining that she did, the Court examined ORS 746.230 (Oregon’s Unfair Claim Settlement Practices statute). While acknowledging that the statute did not create an independent cause of action, the Supreme Court nevertheless found as follows:

We find that the statue provides explicit notice to insurers of the conduct that is required and, in requiring insurers to conduct reasonable investigations and to settle claims when liability becomes reasonably clear, does so in terms that are consistent with the standard of care applicable in common claw negligence cases.

Moody, 2023 Ore. LEXIS 692 at *41.

The Court went on to hold that permitting a common law negligence claim could further the statute’s purpose by deterring insurers from engaging in prohibited conduct. The Court went on to find that allowing emotional distress damages would not place an undue burden on the Defendant because insurers are in a relationship of mutual expectations with insureds and that the insurer could reasonably foresee that failing to exercise reasonable care in the handling of the relationship could result in emotional harm. Finally, the Court held that the claimed harm was of sufficient importance under public policy to justify allowing the claim to proceed. The Court’s ultimate conclusion was stated as follows:

Considering all of those factors, and not relying on any one of them alone, we conclude that the insurance claim practices that ORS 476.230 requires and the emotional harm that may foreseeably occur if that statute is violated are sufficiently weighty to merit imposition of common-law negligence and recovery of emotional distress damages.

Moody, 2023 Ore. LEXIS 692 at *51.

While the Court cautioned that its conclusion would not make every contracting party liable for negligence that causes emotional harm, the holding is extremely concerning and problematic for insurers. In fact, the holding may effectively overturn long-standing Oregon case law holding that insurers are not liable in tort for the handling of an insurance claim. See, e.g., Farris v. U.S. Fid. and Guar. Co., 284 Ore. 453, 587 P.2d 1015 (1978) (Farris II). This issue was recognized in the Moody dissent as follows:

The majority’s analysis creates uncertainty about the remaining precedential effect of Farris II. If the majority means to distinguish Farris II on its facts, then courts may still rely on Farris II as rejecting tort liability for third-party insurers that have denied coverage in bad faith, which were the facts presented in that case. On the Other hand, if the majority is distinguishing Farris II based on the pleadings or based on the legal theory that the plaintiffs asserted in that case, then Farris II might have no precedential effect in any case styled as a negligence claim.

Moody, 2023 Ore. LEXIS 692 at *78 n.7.

The full nature and impact of the Moody decision will likely remain unknown until the Oregon Supreme Court has had the opportunity to further clarify or refine its holding in subsequent cases. As it stands, insurers in Oregon now potentially face liability for general damages (and potentially other alleged consequential damages) in tort as long as those claims are styled as negligence claims. Effectively, the Oregon Supreme Court has created bad faith liability for insurers based on a negligence standard of proof. This reflects a substantial increase in exposure for insurers doing business in Oregon especially when one considers that the majority of jurisdictions require a higher burden of proof for bad faith claims (i.e. unreasonable, frivolous, or unfounded denial of benefits).

The attorneys at Lether Law Group have in excess of thirty-one years’ experience in advising insurers on the handling of extra-contractual claims. This experience includes handling claims and litigating insurance disputes in the state of Oregon. We have several attorneys licensed in Oregon and actively litigating coverage and extra-contractual claims in that jurisdiction. Please do not hesitate to contact our office if you have any questions regarding the Moody decision or any other insurance matter.

 

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Oregon Supreme Court Strikes Down $500,000 Non-Economic Damages Cap for Personal Injury Claims as Unconstitutional

On July 9, 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court issued its Opinion in Busch v. McInnis Waste Sys., Inc., Case No. SC S066098. Five of the seven justices representing the majority held that the $500,000 cap on non-economic damages for personal injury claims was unconstitutional under the Remedy Clause of Article I, Section 10 of the Oregon Constitution. This cap on damages was enacted in its current form in 1987 and is found at ORS 31.710(1). The statute provides:
Except for claims subject to ORS 30.260 to 30.300 [Actions against Public Entities] and ORS chapter 656 [Worker’s Compensation], in any civil action seeking damages arising out of bodily injury, including emotional injury or distress, death or property damage of any one person including claims for loss of care, comfort, companionship and society and loss of consortium, the amount awarded for non-economic damages shall not exceed $500,000.

In Busch, the plaintiff filed suit to seek personal injury damages against a private garbage company after he was run over by a garbage truck while a pedestrian in a crosswalk in downtown Portland. The plaintiff eventually underwent an amputation above-the-knee due to his injuries. Liability was admitted prior to trial. The jury awarded the plaintiff $10,500,000 in non-economic damages. However, the trial court reduced the non-economic damages awarded by the jury to $500,000 due to the application of ORS 31.710(1). The Court of Appeals reversed and review was accepted by the Supreme Court.

The Court’s decision in Busch follows a long line of cases addressing the constitutionality of statutory damages caps. These challenges are based on the Remedy Clause, which provides “every man shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property, or reputation.” In Busch, the Court confirmed that the new framework for analyzing the constitutional issues raised by all statutory damages caps was set forth in Horton v. OHSU, 359 Or 168 (2016). This new framework looks at the purpose and mechanics of the statutory scheme including the damages cap and whether a substantial remedy remained in general and as applied to the plaintiff. In Horton, the Court upheld the damages cap set forth in the Oregon Tort Claims Act, which applies to civil actions against public entities (and their employees). The Busch court used the analytical framework in Horton to distinguish the cases and strike down the damages cap proscribed in ORS 31.710(1) as applied to personal injury claims. The primary distinguishing point between the two caps is that the Oregon Tort Claims Act provided tort remedies against the State which did not exist before the Act due to sovereign immunity.

With the addition of the Busch decision, there is now more certainty regarding the application of statutory damages caps in Oregon. This is especially true in straight-forward personal injury claims involving private parties. However, because there is no bright-line rule, there remains the potential for uncertainty in other contexts.

Based on this new decision, we anticipate a significant increase in claim activity and exposures in Oregon. Lether Law Group has a number of highly experienced attorneys licensed to practice in Oregon courts. This includes shareholders Tom Lether, Eric Neal and Westin McLean. If you have any questions regarding the application of Oregon law on pending claims in that jurisdiction, please feel free to contact our offices.

FRCP 26 AMENDMENTS AND THE EFFECTS ON INSTITUTIONAL DISCOVERY

The December 1, 2015 amendments to FRCP 26 focus largely on the proportionality of discovery by expressly outlining factors to be weighed in determining the proper scope of discovery, including the “importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties’ relative access to relevant information, the parties’ resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit.”

While courts have long considered the burden created by discovery requests, these amendments affirm the growing importance of proportionality. The Advisory Committee which proposed the changes appears to have been motivated to curb the high costs of discovery, especially those presented due to the increasing role and utilization of electronically-stored information. To that end, FRCP 26(c)(1)(B) was also amended to expressly grant the court’s the authority to make orders regarding allocation of discovery expenses in ruling on protective order motions. The commentary which accompanied the amendments further indicates the motivation of the Advisory Committee, stating:

The burden or expense of proposed discovery should be determined in a realistic way. This includes the burden or expense of producing electronically stored information. Computer-based methods of searching such information continue to develop, particularly for cases involving large volumes of electronically stored information. Courts and parties should be willing to consider the opportunities for reducing the burden or expense of discovery as reliable means of searching electronically stored information become available.

These high costs are particularly felt by institutional parties as they are more likely to have voluminous records and data subject to discovery. The amendments to FRCP 26 make the burden of preparing and producing discovery, and the potentially large amount of information, a primary consideration in determining how to proceed with discovery in a given case. They should also provide ammunition for institutional parties to fight back against opposing attorneys who seek to obtain leverage through overly abusive and costly discovery tactics. Until attorneys fully buy-in to the changes, we expect the amendments to FRCP 26 will result in a temporary increase in protective order motion practice initiated by parties seeking to avoid the burdens and abuses meant to be reduced by this new rule.