Arbitration Clause in Policy Void in Louisiana

Right of Contracting Parties to Arbitrate Prohibited by Louisiana Statute

Post 4822

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Plaintiff SKAV, L.L.C. owns a Best Western hotel in Abbeville, Louisiana. The hotel was damaged when Hurricane Laura, one of the strongest hurricanes in state history, made landfall in August 2020. SKAV submitted a claim on a surplus lines insurance policy it had purchased from Independent Specialty Insurance. The policy contained a broad arbitration clause, requiring “[a]ll matters in dispute” to be settled by arbitration. SKAV litigated the dispute and the insurer asked that arbitration – in accordance with the contract of insurance, be arbitrated.

In S. K. A. V., L.L.C. v. Independent Specialty Insurance Company, No. 23-30293, United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit (June 5, 2024) the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to answer whether § 22:868 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes void an arbitration provision in a contract for surplus lines insurance?

FACTS

SKAV sued Independent Specialty in the Western District of Louisiana, alleging that it had failed to timely and adequately cover the hotel’s hurricane damage under the terms of the policy. The parties unsuccessfully participated in several months of court-directed mediation, after which Independent Specialty moved to compel arbitration. The district court denied the motion concluding that § 22:868  preempted the Federal Arbitration Act.

ANALYSIS

The parties primarily dispute what effect, if any, § 22:868 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes has on the insurance policy’s arbitration clause. The statute bars insurance policies from ousting Louisiana courts of jurisdiction and permits, in limited circumstances, forum- and venue-selection provisions.

There was no dispute that the surplus lines insurance policy at issue in this case is, under subsection (D), was “not subject to approval by the Department of Insurance.” Thus, the only question is whether the policy’s arbitration clause is barred by subsection (A)(2) or permitted by subsection (D).\

Many district courts in Louisiana, including some in New York, have reached conflicting decisions on this specific issue. One district court in the Eastern District of Louisiana certified the question to the Louisiana Supreme Court last year, but, over two dissenting opinions, the State’s High Court declined to answer.  The Fifth Circuit, as a federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction, needs to resolve this case as it thinks the Louisiana Supreme Court would rule.

From the start, Louisiana courts have described § 22:868 as memorializing an “anti-arbitration policy.” The statute does not expressly mention arbitration, but it bars insurance policies from “[d]epriving the courts of this state of the jurisdiction . . . of action against the insurer,” and Louisiana courts, in turn, have understood arbitration clauses to divest them of jurisdiction.

The Fifth Circuit’s reading of § 22:868, concluded that the policy did not create a valid and enforceable arbitration agreement and that when a statute prevents the valid formation of an arbitration agreement, as it read § 22:868 to do, the Fifth Circuit cannot compel arbitration, even on threshold questions of arbitrability.

ZALMA OPINION

When a contract of insurance requires all disputes to be resolved by arbitration it deprives the state of its jurisdiction to resolve disputes by means of its courts. The statute clearly and unambiguously deprived parties of the right to select arbitration over the state courts as the forum to resolve disputes over the terms and conditions of contracts. Since the statute prevents the formation of an arbitration the Fifth Circuit had no right to compel arbitration.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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