NY Archdiocese Sues Insurers After Coverage Denied for Child Sex Abuse Claims

By Dan M. Clark
New York Law Journal
July 1, 2019

The suit serves as a proactive move by the archdiocese, which is seeking a declaration by the court that the insurance companies must provide coverage for, and defend the church against, those claims.

The Archdiocese of New York has filed a lawsuit against its various insurers over the years after one company said it’s not planning to cover claims brought through a new law enacted this year that will open a window for older victims of child sex abuse to file civil litigation in New York.

The suit serves as a proactive move by the archdiocese, which is seeking a declaration by the court that the insurance companies must provide coverage for, and defend the church against, those claims.

It’s the exact outcome church officials had feared early on in discussions over the Child Victims Act, a bill passed in New York this year that extended the statute of limitations for cases of child sex abuse and created a temporary window for victims of any age to bring civil litigation. That window, which runs for a year, opens in August.

The Catholic Church eventually came around to support the final version of the legislation, which was approved by lawmakers in January and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

But the litigation brought by the archdiocese last week affects more than just members of the clergy, the suit claimed. Other institutions, like schools or hospitals, could also find themselves in a situation later this year where an insurer rejects coverage for claims of child sex abuse.

Attorneys from Blank Rome in Manhattan are representing the archdiocese in the lawsuit, which was brought against nearly three dozen companies in Manhattan Supreme Court last week.

It was prompted by a decision in May from Indemnity Insurance Co. of North America, or INA, and its parent company Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. They had written in a letter to the archdiocese that they didn’t plan to defend the church against a lawsuit brought by a child sex abuse victim in April and wouldn’t provide coverage for the claims he’d alleged.

That lawsuit was brought against the archdiocese by John Michael Norman, who alleged that two members of the clergy sexually abused him from 1972 to 1974. He brought claims of negligence against the archdiocese in the suit, claiming the church “knew and/or reasonably should have known” about the abuse.

During that time, according to the suit, the archdiocese was insured by INA. The insurance policy purchased at the time stated that INA has the duty to defend the church “even if the allegations of the suit are groundless, false, or fraudulent,” the complaint said.

The archdiocese provided notice to INA of the lawsuit in April, but was denied coverage about two weeks later.

Chubb had written, on behalf of INA, that they weren’t obligated to provide coverage or defend against the lawsuit based on the nature of Norman’s claims. The denial letter said Norman “alleges to have sustained injury that was expected and/or intended from the standpoint of the archdiocese. These allegations do not give rise to an ‘occurrence’ under the INA policies.”

The archdiocese claimed in the complaint filed last week that Chubb and INA misinterpreted Norman’s lawsuit. They argued that Norman didn’t allege the archdiocese expected or intended on him being sexually abused. His suit was worded differently, the church said.

“Instead, the Norman suit makes alternative allegations that the archdiocese knew or should have known of the improper conduct of Father Fernando and Monsignor Brennan,” the complaint said. “The Norman suit thus seeks to hold the archdiocese liable even though the archdiocese may not have expected or intended, or even had notice or knowledge of the alleged abuse.”

The church also argued that the insurance companies ignored that Norman’s suit doesn’t identify who might have known about the alleged abuse and what information was available to the archdiocese at the time.

“To the extent that the Norman suit alleges that the archdiocese had knowledge of the alleged abuse, the Norman suit fails even to allege that the archdiocese actually knew or received notice of Father Fernando’s or Monsignor Brennan’s pedophilic propensities prior to the alleged abuse, thus leaving open the possibility that the archdiocese neither expected nor intended the abuse, if at all, until some point after it started,” the lawsuit said.

Norman’s suit hasn’t yet been filed, but it’s set to become active when the one-year window opens in August. The Child Victims Act raised the statute of limitations for civil claims of child sex abuse to age 55. Victims above that age will have the window to initiate their litigation.

If the archdiocese, and other institutions, are denied coverage of those claims by insurance companies, they’ll have to foot the bill during the one-year window and for any other civil claims brought within the confines of the law.

A spokesman for the church confirmed the details of the suit Monday afternoon.

“Rather than honor its contractual obligation under the insurance policies they issued, Chubb has advised the Archdiocese that it will not stand behind its insurance policies and contractual obligations,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdioese. “This leaves the Archdiocese with no choice but to commence a lawsuit to ask the court to order Chubb to stand behind their insurance policies.”

The lawsuit is seeking to have the court strike down the reasoning by Chubb and INA for denying coverage and refusing to defend the church, and then to have that decision applied to each of the other insurers named.

A spokesman for Chubb declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying that company policy precludes them from speaking on open litigation. It’s unclear if the company has yet retained counsel for the litigation.

The New York archdiocese includes Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island in New York City and Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester counties.



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