On October 9, 2020, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department, decided an appeal from a trial court’s 2018 summary judgment ruling on a number of coverage issues arising out of asbestos-related bodily injury claims against plaintiffs Carrier Corporation (Carrier) and Elliott Company (Elliott). See Carrier Corp. v. Allstate Ins. Co., No. 396 CA 18-02292, Mem. & Order (N.Y. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 4th Dep’t Oct. 9, 2020).
The Fourth Department reversed the trial court’s ruling that, under New York’s “injury in fact trigger of coverage,” injury occurs from the first date of exposure to asbestos through death or the filing of suit as a matter of law. The parties agreed that, because the policy language at issue required personal injury to take place “during the policy period,” “the applicable test in determining what event constitutes personal injury sufficient to trigger coverage is injury-in-fact, ‘which rests on when the injury, sickness, disease or disability actually began.’” Id. at 3 (quoting Cont’l Cas. Co. v. Rapid-American Corp., 609 N.E.2d 506, 511 (N.Y. 1993)). The Fourth Department concluded that, in resolving the issue, the trial court erred by relying on inapposite decisions in other cases where: (1) the parties had stipulated or otherwise not disputed that first exposure triggered coverage; or (2) the issue had not been resolved on summary judgment, but rather at trial based on expert medical evidence. The Fourth Department further explained that, even if plaintiffs here had met their initial burden on summary judgment by submitting admissible evidence that asbestos-related injury actually begins upon first exposure, the defendant-insurer’s opposition – which included affidavits of medical experts contradicting that evidence and averring instead that “harm occurs only when a threshold level of asbestos fiber or particle burden is reached that overtakes the body’s defense mechanisms” – raised a triable issue of fact. Id. at 4. The Fourth Department also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the defendant-insurer was collaterally estopped on the “trigger” issue by a California appellate court’s decision in Armstrong World Industries, Inc. v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 52 Cal. Rptr. 2d 690 (Cal. Ct. App. 1996). The Fourth Department reasoned that the issues litigated in the two cases were not identical because, among other things, California and New York “apply different substantive law in determining when asbestos-related injury occurs.” Carrier, Mem. & Order at 4.