State of Washington v. James River Insurance Company – What Impact on Bermuda Insurers?

The short answer is – none.

State of Washington, Dept. of Transportation v. James River Insurance Company, – P.3d –, 2013 WL 258877 (Wash. January 24, 2013), a January 2013 decision of the Washington State Supreme Court, upheld a Washington statute prohibiting insurance contracts from depriving Washington policyholders from access to state courts, due to the insurer’s contract provisions calling for arbitration to resolve contract disputes. [The Insurance Law Blog reported on the decision shortly after the court ruled on January 17th.]

James River represents a purely U.S.-domestic dispute. All parties to the dispute were U.S. residents, such that the NY Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (“the NY Convention”), which is the source of enforcement of international arbitration agreements, did not apply. The NY Convention applies to arbitration agreements between parties of different nations, each of which is signatory to the NY Convention, and requires those nations to enforce the arbitration agreements between those parties.

The law in the U.S. dealing with conflicts between international arbitration agreements and state insurance law is not uniform, but if a trend is apparent, it is to recognize the primacy of these international contractual agreements via the NY Convention over contrary state law. The question: whether the McCarron Ferguson Act, granting the states the right to regulate insurance except in cases where Congress has expressed a contrary intent, would be trumped by Federal law recognizing the enforceability of international arbitration agreements. The issues controlling these decisions are complex, and require consideration beyond the space available here. However, of the three Circuit Courts that have considered this question, two,¹ and importantly, the most recent two, have found in favor of enforcing the arbitration agreement, while only one,² the earliest, has not.

The lesson here is that U.S. state court decisions about purely domestic disputes say nothing about the enforceability of international arbitration agreements as are typically included in Bermuda form policies. The U.S. federal courts have generally favored the enforcement of these agreements. Equally important to Bermuda insurers is the fact that Bermuda and U.K. courts have routinely been receptive to applications to issue anti-suit injunctions to bar lawsuits filed in contravention of arbitration agreements. In short, Bermuda insurers may continue to rely on the enforceability of their chosen Bermuda- or London-based arbitration selection.  


¹ Safety National Casualty Corp. v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyds, 587 F.3d 714 (5th Cir. 2009); ESAB Group v. Zurich Insurance PLC, 685 F.3d 376 (4th Cir. 2012).

² Stephens v. American International Ins. Co., 66 F.3d 41 (2d. Cir. 1995).

 

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