Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Jefferson Block 24 Oil & Gas, v. Aspen Insurance UK

Aug 29: In the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, Case No. 10-30190. Appealed from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. In this insurance coverage dispute, Plaintiff–Appellant Jefferson Block 24 Oil & Gas, L.L.C. (Jefferson Block) appealed from the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendants–Appellees, Aspen Insurance UK Limited, Ace European Group Limited, and Certain Underwriters at Lloyd's, London (collectively Underwriters). In a split decision, the Appeals Court reversed and remanded the case to the district court.
    The majority opinion concludes, "In short, we believe that the district court erred when it refused to apply the contra-insurer rule in this case. As we have discussed, the OPA [Oil Pollution Act] Policy is ambiguous with respect to the issue of coverage for Jefferson Block's 16-inch pipeline. This ambiguity arises because the policy's schedule of insured facilities refers to an MMS-1021 form that lists only the locations of facilities. Whether the pipeline -- which begins at one of the locations designated on the form but crosses others not so designated -- is a facility "thereon" one of the locations on the form cannot be determined through reference to the plain language of the policy. . . the extrinsic evidence in the record does not conclusively resolve this ambiguity. Since Jefferson Block offers a reasonable interpretation of the policy -- that a right-of-way pipeline originating in one of the lease blocks designated on an MMS-1021 form is included in that designation -- and did not completely draft the ambiguous provisions of the OPA Policy, the contra-insurer rule should apply and the ambiguity should be resolved in favor of the insured, Jefferson Block. The 16-inch pipeline was a 'covered offshore facility' designated on Jefferson Block's MMS-1021 form and thus included within the scope of coverage afforded by the OPA Policy."
    The dissenting opinion states that Jefferson Block contends that its OPA insurance policy insures it against the costs of a recent spill from a particular 16-inch right-of-way oil pipeline and the Underwriters contend that the policy does not. "The majority reverses, relying on the rule of contra proferentem to construe ambiguity in the policy against the Underwriters. The substantial weight of recent New York authority, however, suggests that contra proferentem should not apply in this case. I therefore
dissent." The dissent explains that contra proferentem has taken the form of the so-called "contra-insurer" rule, which provides that when an ambiguity is found in a policy, it must be construed against the insurer and in favor of coverage. However, the dissent indicates that, "A review of the case law reveals numerous opinions suggesting that contra proferentem will not apply where the party seeking the benefit of the doctrine was sophisticated and negotiated the legal instrument at issue."
    The dissent concludes that, ". . . 'the touchstone for applying contra proferentem is the insured's lack of sophistication,' particularly where the parties do not have 'equivalent bargaining power.' U.S. Fire Ins. Co., 949 F.2d at 574. A sophisticated party with a means to influence the terms of the contract should be able to identify and, if necessary, remedy ambiguities at the time of drafting. Such a party does not need a thumb on the scales in its favor."
    Access the complete majority opinion and dissent (click here). [#Remed, #CA5]

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