Supreme Court Opinion on Maritime Law Solidifies Insurer’s Choice-of-Law Clause

By | March 18, 2024

A dispute between an insurer and a yacht owner that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in a decision — the first of its kind on marine insurance in about 70 years — to clarify federal maritime law and state insurance law.

The highest court recently released a unanimous opinion that choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts, governed by federal maritime law, are enforceable over state law. Maritime contracts include marine insurance policies.

The case at hand, Great Lakes Insurance v. Raiders Retreat Realty, goes back to 2019 when a yacht ran aground in Florida, sustaining hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Munich Re’s Great Lakes denied the claim and sued Raiders Retreat in Pennsylvania federal court after an investigation found that fire extinguishers on the boat did not meet required standards. Raiders Retreat then countersued, alleging breach of contract under Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law. The insurer won in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania — which found that federal choice-of-law provisions in the policy could be enforced.

Raiders appealed and, while the U.S. Court of Appeals recognized choice-of-law provisions in maritime contracts, it sent the case back to the district court to consider whether applying New York law would violate Pennsylvania’s policy regarding insurance. Insurers typically include choice-of-law provisions in contracts and declare that New York law applies when there is no federal precedent.

The American Institute of Marine Underwriters said the Supreme Court’s decision clarified the insurer’s choice-of-law clause in a policy and said it cannot be disregarded due to another state’s laws. There are narrow exceptions but none applied to this case, the court said. “The ruling adheres to the principles of uniformity and certainty in maritime law,” the AIMU said. Great Lakes was represented by AIMU member, The Goldman Maritime Law Group, and an amicus brief, cited several times in the opinion delivered by Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, was written by member Wiggin and Dana on behalf of AIMU.

“As well stated in the court’s opinion, this decision will enable marine insurers to better assess risk,” said John Miklus, president of AIMU, in a statement. “By enforcing an insurance policy’s choice-of-law provisions in jurisdictions that are well developed, known, and regarded, the court recognizes that insurers can lower the price and expand the availability of marine insurance.”

Kavanaugh wrote that the presumption of enforceability of the provisions “facilitates maritime commerce by reducing uncertainty and lowering costs for maritime actors.”

“Maritime commerce traverses interstate and international boundaries, so when a maritime accident or dispute occurs, time-consuming and difficult questions can arise about which law governs,” he continued. “By identifying the governing law in advance, choice-of-law provisions allow parties to avoid later disputes — as well as ensuing litigation and its attendant costs.”

Pamela A. Palmer of the Clark Hill law firm said the high court opinion will help to “eliminate any confusion in the industry that marine insurance contracts are somehow different than or held to a different standard than general maritime contracts.”

“What strikes me in the decision is the court’s acknowledgment that choice-of-law provisions are important to reduce uncertainty and to lower costs for maritime entities but, more importantly in the context of marine insurers, knowing what law applies enables marine insurers to better assess risk and to price policies,” Palmer said. “This is a huge consideration for the marine insurance industry and had the court held otherwise the price and availability of insurance would be severely impacted — considerations that ironically would have harmed policyholders in the long run despite what would have felt like a short-term policyholder win in this case.”

Onlookers also waited to see if the Supreme Court would address a 1955 decision in Wilburn Boat Co. v. Fireman’s Insurance Co., another maritime insurance case in which the court ruled a court could apply state law if there is no established maritime law. However, Kavanaugh concluded Wilburn Boat did not need to be considered because it did not involve choice-of-law provisions.

“While it would have been an additional victory for proponents of maritime uniformity for the court to have overruled Wilburn Boat, Justice Kavanaugh did not take that additional step,” wrote Charlie McCammon, president of marine risk consulting, in a blog for WTW.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately about Wilburn Boat, saying it is “at odds with the fundamental precept of admiralty law.” “Wilburn Boat’s rationale is deeply flawed,” he added.

Topics Carriers Pennsylvania

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