Wendy “Bulldog” Worrylittle is a partner in a New York City law firm who has just landed her first reinsurance case. Her client, Cedent C, an insurance company domiciled and licensed to do business in New York, told her that the case involves a single excess-of-loss contract between C and participants in a reinsurance pool fronted by Reinsurer R, which is domiciled in Delaware and has its principal place of business in South Carolina. The reinsurance contract does not contain an arbitration agreement, but provides that “New York shall govern this contract,” and that R consents to personal jurisdiction in any court of competent jurisdiction in New York State.
The dispute concerns three reinsurance claims, which R has not paid. Each arose out of C’s settlements with three of its insureds, each one of which had commenced a declaratory judgment action against C seeking a declaration of coverage for asbestos or environmental property damage or bodily injury claims brought by third parties. Cedent C tells Wendy that each of the claims was billed a month or so shy of six-years ago, the parties negotiated for a few years and R subsequently informed C in writing that it rejected the claims as presented.
Cedent C asks Wendy to commence an action against R in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Wendy notes that a statute-of-limitations issue may be looming, as she recalls that New York’s statute of limitations for a breach of contract claim is six years and that it runs from the date of the breach. In light of the potential statute-of-limitations problem, she quickly confirms her understanding outline.
Based on what she remembers and has confirmed about the statute of limitations, and on her limited knowledge of the facts, she reasons that, because the reinsurance contract expressly contemplates that C will present claims through a reinsurance intermediary, the statute of limitations cannot have begun to run at any time prior to C billing R. She does not consider whether the statute of limitations might have begun to run at any earlier time, because R could not have breached the contract at any time prior to C presenting the claims, let alone giving R an opportunity to decide whether to pay them.
So Wendy files and serves C’s complaint within the six-year period as measured from the dates on which C presented the claims. Upon the deadline for responding to the complaint, Reinsurer R, represented by Karen “Cardozo” Iknowlaw, files not an answer but a motion to dismiss on the ground that C’s claims are time barred. Before reading the papers, Wendy’s all-to-quick temper flares and she vows to seek sanctions against Karen, who, in Wendy’s view, obviously knows nothing about the law, let alone the facts.
Is Reinsurer R’s Motion to Dismiss Well-founded?
Wendy quite correctly concluded that C’s suit is for breach of contract and that New York’s breach-of -contract statute of limitations is six years, which is ordinarily calculated from the date of breach. But her analysis was off the mark because she did not ascertain and analyze all the potentially relevant facts and law.
Although as a general rule the contract statute of limitations begins to run at the time of the breach, there is an exception that is particularly pertinent in the reinsurance context, and which is somewhat counterintuitive. Recall that C billed R for the claims nearly six years ago. Wendy’s client did not mention, and Wendy did not ask about, the dates on which the claims were settled and the corresponding dates by which C could reasonably have been expected to present each claim to R. Wendy apparently did not consider this information relevant to the statute of limitations issue, but it can be outcome determinative of it. Continue Reading »