The Minnesota Attorney General had enough of insurance companies failing to live up to the promise of putting policyholders back into the same position they were before the loss. Currently, the situation is the same throughout the nation, where insurers say they will do one thing, but have their attorneys argue out of the bargain based on obscure policy wording. Matching the damaged portion of the structure to the remaining parts of a structure is one such issue, and we literally tracked down this State action by the Minnesota Attorney General because we feel the issue is that important.
The Complaint alleged in part:
1. The State of Minnesota, by its Attorney General, Make Hatch, brings this consumer protection lawsuit for declaratory and injunctive relief, restitution, civil penalties, costs and reasonable attorney fees. Defendant American Family Mutual Insurance Company, in advertising and selling its homeowners insurance policies to Minnesota consumers, represents that it will provide full insurance coverage to consumers in the event that their homes are damaged by accidental perils, including windstorm and hail. Contrary to such representations and the reasonable expectations of consumers, defendant has repeatedly failed to provide full replacement coverage to insured consumers whose homes are damaged by storms. Instead defendant reimburses such consumers only for work necessary to replace the portion of the consumer’s home (for example, one wall of siding) that defendant maintains was directly damaged. Defendant;s practice forces many consumers to choose between having a home with mismatched siding of roofing or reaching into their own pockets to pay for the matched siding or roofing that was on their homes before the storm damages occurred.
The Order set out the relevant policy language:
5. American Family’s homeowners’ policies provide for full replacement costs, without deduction for depreciation, and insure the policyholder’s dwelling for all loss or damage unless the loss is excluded in the policy. Under the "Replacement Cost" section of American Family’s policies, American Family undertakes the following obligation:
[W]e will pay the full cost to repair or replace the damaged building without deducting for depreciation, but not exceeding the smallest of…ii. the cost to replace the damaged building with like construction for similar use on the same premises; or iii. the amount actually and necessarily spent for repair or replacement of the damaged building.
Our Settlement Option. In the event of a covered loss, we have the option to: a. make a cash settlement for all or part of the damaged, destroyed or stolen property; or b) pay the cost to repair, rebuild or replace all or the necessary part(s) of the damaged, destroyed or stolen property with like property, as of the time of loss, less an allowance for depreciation when replacement cost coverage doesn’t apply.
The Court then set out the facts which are virtually the same as in all matching cases:
7. After the storm damage occurred in 1998, in many instances, materials of like kind and quality necessary to repair damages to the siding or roofing existing on consumers’ homes were no longer manufactured or were otherwise unavailable; consequently, materials reasonably matching those on consumers’ homes were not available. As a result, consumers have had to incur substantial out-of-pocket costs in order to obtain matching materials or live in mismatched homes.
The Court also noted that the insurer never gave the consumer the impression, in any other advertising or dealings with the consumer, that a matching structure would not be paid for:
9. Nothing in American Family’s policies limits the insurer’s obligation, excludes coverage or otherwise supports American Family’s practice of limiting payment under replacement value provisions of its policies to sums necessary to replace only the portion of the policyholder’s dwelling that is directly damaged by a covered peril, including a hail or wind storm, where replacement materials that reasonably match (i.e., that are, under the policies’ language, "of like construction for similar use" to) the existing materials on the dwelling are no longer manufactured or are otherwise not available.
10. In advertising and selling its homeowners’ insurance policies, American Family has not affirmatively disclosed or informed consumers of the material fact that Defendant, as a matter of practice, limits the amount it pays for storm damages to the cost of replacing only those portions of the consumer’s home that American Family maintains are directly damaged even if its failure to do so would result in a mismatch.
11. Defendant does not disclose or inform consumers, prior to their purchase of homeowners’ insurance policies from Defendant or at any time prior to the consumer’s filing of a claim, that Defendant limits the amount that it pays for storm damages to the cost of replacing only those portions of the consumer’s home that Defendant maintains are directly damaged, even if repairs result in a mismatch.
12. As a matter of practice and policy, American Family routinely settles claims under its automobile insurance policies and Minnesota law with parts of "like kind and quality" that match or are painted to match the undamaged parts of the vehicle. At oral argument, American Family explained this discrepancy in its interpretation of "like kind and quality" between its homeowners and automobile insurance as one strictly of cost.
The Court’s ruling is significant and should provide some guidance to others with these situations:
2. In construing and interpreting the text of an insurance policy, the Court must consider the interaction of the policy clauses, the insured causes of loss and any limitations or exclusions on the insurer’s liability for the consequences of an otherwise insured event. Witcher Construction Company v. St. Paul Fire & Insurance Co., 550 NW2d 1 (Minn. App. 1996), rev. denied (Minn. 1966). Pursuant to American Family’s policies, hail damage to a dwelling is a covered loss with the amount of monetary loss subject to the limitations as set out in the replacement value provisions and the exclusions contained within the different policies.
3. A court is not to read an ambiguity into the plain language of a policy to ensure coverage. Farkas v. Hartford Acc. & Indem., 173 NW2d 21, 24 (Minn.). Instead, the Court must give the terms in a policy their plain, ordinary and popular meaning, Columbia Heights Motors v. Allstate Insurance, 275 NW 2d 32, 34 (Minn. 1979) and construe the policy terms in conformance with applicable statutes. When policy language is ambiguous or confusing, it is public policy in Minnesota to extend coverage, rather than restrict it. Hennen v. St. Paul Mercury Insurance, 312 Minn. 131, 136, 250 NW2d 840, 844 (1977). The language in the Defendant’s policy regarding replacement value for the repair of covered damages is not ambiguous and not subject to more than one interpretation. Estes v. State Farm & Casualty Co., 358 NW2d 123, 124 (Minn. App. 1984); Columbia Heights Motors v. Allstate Insurance, 275 NW2d 32 (Minn. 1979). In this case, any confusion as to the amount of a covered loss has resulted from Defendant’s argument that their obligations under their policy provisions are met by only paying for new materials to replace the damaged areas of the home, without regard as to whether the new materials match in color, quality, texture or material the original siding or roofing on the home "at the time of the loss." At oral argument, Defendant conceded that pursuant to the same statutory language of "like kind and quality", Defendant repairs damaged automobiles with matching parts, both physically and "cosmetically." Defendant points out that the difference in their interpretation of their obligations under these two subdivisions of Minn. Stat. 72A.201 is based on the greater cost to Defendant to achieve a "matching" result on a damaged home. Compare Minn. Stat. 72A.201, Subd. 6 (2) and 72A.201 Subd. 5 (8).
4. Generally, given the discrepancy in the bargaining positions of the insured and insurer, when the meaning of insurance policy language is in dispute, the matter is to be resolved in favor of the insured. State Farm Insurance v. Seefeld, 481 NW2d 62 (Minn. 1992). Here, Defendant was in a position to add an exclusion or limitation in its replacement coverage under its homeowners’ policies for what should be the common and easily anticipated event that matching housing materials would no longer be available for repairs over the entire useful life of a dwelling. Defendant’s policies contain no such exclusion or limitation. Further, the greater cost to Defendant to achieve a matching result on a home versus an automobile is not justification to interpret identical language in Minn. Stat. 72A.201 differently.
I came across this ruling in the FC&S Bulletins, where it was mentioned briefly. I thank our Knowledge Manager, Attorney Ruck DeMinico, for tracking down the state docket and obtaining the decision after having it copied from the Court archives. My understanding is that Lexis will now make it available as a published opinion. It is a significant decision, and I encourage other Departments of Insurance to take note of the need to prevent this practice by insurers– it happens frequently.