In a very interesting case, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department held that principles of collateral estoppel do not apply in arbitration.
Matter of Falzone v New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co. 2009 NY Slip Op 05423 (4th Dept. 2009)
In this case, a Claimant initially arbitrated a no-fault claim between himself and his insurance carrier. The issue that was arbitrated involved whether Claimant’s injuries were causally related to the motor vehicle accident. A no-fault arbitrator found the injuries to be causally related to the motor vehicle accident and awarded benefits.
The Claimant after obtaining an award for no fault benefits then sought to obtain SUM benefits arising from the same loss. Accordingly, Claimant commenced a second arbitration between himself and the same carrier upon which he was awarded no-fault benefits. The insurance carrier’s defense to payment in this SUM arbitration, similar to that in the no-fault arbitration, was that there was a lack of a causal nexus between the motor vehicle accident and the alleged injuries.
Since the parties and issues to be resolved in this SUM matter were the same as that in the no-fault matter, i.e., whether the injuries were causally related to the motor vehicle accident, you would think that principles of collateral estoppel would come into play and bind the SUM arbitrator to the same decision as that of the no-fault arbitrator. As we saw in a previous post involving the matter of Lobel v. Allstate, a no-fault arbitrator’s decision on causation will collaterally estopp a party from re-litigating a previously arbitrated issue in Court. Yet, the SUM arbitrator, aware that the prior arbitrator found a causal nexus existed between the motor vehicle accident and the injuries, nonetheless ruled that there was no causal connection between the injuries and the motor vehicle accident.
An Article 75 challenge was lodged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted the petition, reversed the SUM arbitrator’s decision and properly found that the results of the no-fault arbitration collaterally estopped the parties from contesting the causal relationship between the motor vehicle accident and the injuries at the SUM arbitration. Thus, the SUM arbitratror, as a matter of law, had to find that there was a causal relationship between the motor vehicle accident and the loss. The carrier appealed and the Fourth Department surprisingly reversed the order and judgment of the Supreme Court as set forth herein:
“We agree with respondent that Supreme Court erred in granting claimant’s motion. The fact that a prior arbitration award is inconsistent with a subsequent award is not an enumerated ground in either subdivision (b) or (c) of CPLR 7511 for vacating or modifying the subsequent award (see Matter of City School Dist. of City of Tonawanda v Tonawanda Educ. Assn., 63 NY2d 846, 848). As the court properly recognized, “[i]t was within the [SUM] arbitrator’s authority to determine the preclusive effect of the prior arbitration on the instant arbitration” (Matter of Progressive N. Ins. Co. v Sentry Ins. A Mut. Co., 51 AD3d 800, 801). The court erred in noting, however, that it was unable to determine whether the SUM arbitrator even considered claimant’s contention with respect to collateral estoppel. Arbitrators are not required to provide reasons for their decisions (see Matter of Solow Bldg. Co. v Morgan Guar. Trust Co. of N.Y., 6 AD3d 356, 356-357, lv denied 3 NY3d 605, cert denied 543 US 1148; Matter of Guetta [Raxon Fabrics Corp.], 123 AD2d 40, 41), and thus the SUM arbitrator was not required to state that he had considered that contention. “
Two points need to be considered. First, the Fourth Department cites a 2007 Second Department case entitled Matter of Progressive N. Ins. Co. v Sentry Ins. A Mut. Co. for its rule of law. Yet, the Progressive case actually held that collateral estoppel should be given effect to prior arbitration awards involving the same parties and the same issue. Second, there was a two Justice dissent, which as a matter of right brings this case to the Court of Appeals.
For the sake of commonsense, this case should be reversed. Otherwise, there will be too many instances where inconsistent decisions will arise in post-ime cases, other policy violation cases and coverage cases, among others. It would be a fair assessment to say that no-fault and other first-party practitioners will not benefit from the uncertainty and some could say absurdity that this case could rein upon the arbitral process.
The law is simple: Disputes involving whether an insurance carrier in a no-fault coverage dispute is primary, secondary, or tertiary must be resolved through intercompany arbitration. This fact pattern was presented four years ago in SZ Medical, P.C. v. Lancer Ins. Co., 7 Misc.3d 86 (App. Term 2d Dept. 2005) and was again presented in M.N. Dental Diagnostics, P.C. v Government Employees Ins. Co., 2009 NY Slip Op 29266(App. Term 1st Dept. 2009).
State Farm v. Stack
2008 NY Slip Op 07651 (2d Dept. 2008)
“A no-fault arbitration tribunal twice concluded that the defendant, James Stack, was entitled to benefits arising from an automobile accident. Subsequently, the plaintiff, State Farm Automobile Insurance Company (hereinafter State Farm), commenced a de novo plenary action seeking a determination that medical expenses for Stack’s hospitalization were for a condition unrelated to the accident and that Stack failed to demonstrate his entitlement to lost earnings.”
“An insurer seeking to deny no-fault benefits on the basis that a claimant’s condition is not causally related to an accident “has the burden to come forward with proof in admissible form to establish the . . . evidentiary foundation for its belief’ that the patient’s treated condition was unrelated to his or her automobile accident” (Mount Sinai Hosp. v Triboro Coach, 263 AD2d 11, 19-20). The testimony of State Farm’s expert witness, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, that his opinion was based solely upon a hospital discharge summary and insurance claim form, rendered his opinion speculative and of little probative value (see Gordon v Tibulcio, 50 AD3d 460).”
“In contrast, the testimony of Stack’s expert witness, a neurologist who based his opinion upon his examination of Stack and his review of Stack’s relevant medical records, including, inter alia, CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging, and determined that Stack’s symptoms first appeared within two weeks of the accident and progressively worsened, was sufficient to establish that Stack’s condition was causally related to the accident (see Scudera v Mahbubur, 299 AD2d 535, 536).”
Comment: Another case where the Appellate Courts are loathe to sustain an insurance carrier’s proof that a service is not causally related to a motor vehicle accident.