Snippets of ten recent insurance judgments by the Supreme Court of India
21 June 2022 21 June 2022
This insight piece has been prepared by colleagues Sumeet Lall (Partner) and Sidhant Kapoor (Senior Associate) in our New Delhi associated office, CSL Chambers, who have sought to highlight and summarise ten recent decisions delivered by the Indian Supreme Court with a potential impact upon the insurance sector.
As business operations seek to attain pre-pandemic levels of growth, insurance is one sector which could prove to be the pivot to sustainability.
Recent judicial interpretation rendered by Supreme Court to various principles of insurance law would prove to be a useful guide for both, Insurers/Insureds in matters relating to coverage.
What is the extent of jurisdiction of a Consumer Forum to examine a surveyor’s report?
Khatema Fibres Ltd. v. New India Assurance Company Ltd. and Ors. IV(2021)CPJ1(SC)
Policy type- Standard Fire and Special Perils
In the instant case, the Supreme Court observed that in cases where the insurance company admitted the insured’s claim, to the extent of the loss as assessed by the surveyor, the jurisdiction of the special forum constituted under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is limited. To establish deficiency, the insured should be able to establish, that the surveyor did not comply with the code of conduct in respect of his duties, responsibilities and other professional requirements as specified by the Regulations made under the Insurance Act, 1938. The Court finally held that a Consumer Forum which is primarily concerned with an allegation of deficiency in service cannot subject the surveyor's report to forensic examination of its anatomy. Once it is found that there was no inadequacy in the quality, nature and manner of performance of the duties and responsibilities of the surveyor, in a manner prescribed by the Regulations as to their code of conduct and once it is found that the report is not based on ad hocism or vitiated by arbitrariness, then the jurisdiction of the Consumer Forum to go further would stop.
Ingredients of a Marine Insurance Policy?
United India Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Levis Strauss (India) Pvt. Ltd. Civil Appeal No. 2955 of 2022
Policy type- Standard Fire & Special Perils Policy, Stock Throughout Policy, All Risks Policy
The Supreme Court in the course of its judgment, inter-alia, examined expressions under the Marine Insurance Act, 1973 (“MI Act”), namely, marine adventure, maritime peril referred to in marine adventure and marine policy. It was observed that Section 4 of the MI Act, deals with mixed marine and land risks. It inter-alia, enables coverage - through express terms, or by usage of trade - extension of marine policies so as to protect the assured against losses on inland waters or on any land risk which may be incidental to any sea voyage. The Supreme Court relied on its earlier judgment in New India Assurance Co. Ltd. v. Hira Lal Ramesh Chand and Ors. 2008 (10) SCC 626, where it was held that an insurance cover extending 'warehouse to warehouse' meant that the consignments are covered by insurance not only during the sea journey, but beyond as stated in the policy i.e. during transit from the time it leaves the consignor's warehouse till it reaches the consignee's warehouse. In the instant case, since there was a warehouse-to-warehouse transit clause and certain other stipulations, which stated that the policy covers both marine and other risks, the policy was held to be a marine insurance policy which comprehensively covered voyage, transit, transportation and warehouse perils. What is material is not whether the insurable event occurred during the voyage; rather, the focus is on the nature of the cover.
Role of exceptions in an insurance policy?
Shivram Chandra Jagarnath Cold Storage and Ors.v. New India Assurance Company Limited and Ors. I(2022)CPJ138(SC)
Policy type- Deterioration of Stock Policy
In this case, the insurance claim of the Insured arose under a deterioration of stock policy which covered the stock of potatoes stored by the insured in cold storage. The surveyor observed that the claim should be rejected in view of exceptions to the policy. Thus, the insurer disclaimed any liability. The Supreme Court discussed the role of exceptions in an insurance policy, wherein it was opined that an insurer seeks to indemnify the insured only against such losses that are caused by certain perils arising under normal conditions whose effects are statistically estimated. The Court observed that exceptions are inserted to exempt the liability of the insurer for which it would be otherwise liable. Excepted clauses are inserted ex abundanti cautela in insurance policies to inform the insured that losses attributable to excepted causes will not be indemnifiable. Since the exception, in this case, was neither too wide nor in conflict with the main purpose of the insurance policy, the claim was held to be correctly repudiated by the insurer, having regard to the specific exceptions in the policy.
What is the rule of contra proferentem?
Haris Marine Products v. Export Credit Guarantee Corporation (ECGC) Limited Civil Appeal No. 4139/2020
Policy type- Single Buyer Exposure Policy
The Supreme Court delved into the term business common sense to interpret terms of a credit risk insurance policy. The Court relied on the UK Supreme Court’s judgment in Arnold v. Britton  UKSC 36 and observed that the business common sense was a decisive method was suggested to construe the ambiguity of a term used in a commercial contract. On contra proferentem, the Court observed that an ambiguous term in an insurance contract is to be construed harmoniously by reading the contract in its entirety. If after that, no clarity emerges, then the term must be interpreted in favour of the insured, i.e., against the drafter of the policy. The Rule of contra proferentem thus protects the insured from the vagaries of an unfavourable interpretation of an ambiguous term to which it did not agree. Importantly, the Court emphasized the role of contra proferentem in standard form insurance policies, called contract d' adhesion or boilerplate contracts, in which the insured has little to no countervailing bargaining power. Accordingly, ECGC was held to have incorrectly interpretated an ambiguous term and was directed to pay the claim amount to the insured since the parties had transacted on several previous occasions.
Can reliance be placed on definition of words in specific statutes when the insurance policy itself defines those words?
Narsingh Ispat Ltd. v. Oriental Insurance Company Ltd. and Ors. Civil Appeal No. 10671 of 2016
Policy type- Standard Fire and Special Perils Policy
The insured had taken a Standard Fire and Special Perils Policy from the insurer. The policy covered the loss caused to the property of the insured on account of fire, lightning, explosion, riots, strike etc. A claim was lodged by the insured on account of 50-60 antisocial people with arms and ammunition, who entered the factory premises of the insured and caused substantial damage to factory, machinery and other equipment. According to the insured, the object of the incident was to terrorise the management of the insured. Insurer repudiated the insured’s claim by placing reliance on the exclusion clause in the policy regarding loss or damage caused by the acts of terrorism, which was defined under the policy. The Supreme Court held that the insurer had failed to discharge the burden of bringing the case within the four corners of the exclusion. When the policy itself defines the acts of terrorism in the exclusion clause, the terms of the policy being a concluded contract will govern the rights and liabilities of the parties. Therefore, the parties cannot rely upon the definitions of 'terrorism' in various penal statutes since the exclusion clause contains an exhaustive definition of acts of terrorism. Since the policy covers explicitly a liability arising out of the damage to the property of the insured due to riots or the use of violent means, therefore, there was no warrant for applying the Exclusion Clause. Accordingly, the Insurer’s decision to repudiate the policy was held to be unsustainable.
Whether there is any strait jacket formula for awarding compensation under the heads, pain and suffering and loss of amenities and happiness?
Sri. Benson George v. Reliance General Insurance Co. Ltd Civil Appeal No. 1540 of 2022
Policy type- Third Party Insurance
The Supreme Court examined its previous decisions in Raj Kumar v. Ajay Kumar and Anr. (2011)1SCC 343 and Lalan D. v. Oriental Insurance Company Limited (2020)9SCC 805, and observed that the amount of compensation to be awarded under the heads, pain and suffering and loss of amenities and happiness cannot be based on a straight jacket formula. It depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case and varies from person to person who has suffered due to the accident. So far as awarding compensation under the head pain, shock, and suffering is concerned, multiple factors are required to be considered namely, prolonged hospitalization, the grievous injuries sustained, the operations underwent and the consequent pain, discomfort and suffering. Similarly, loss of amenities and happiness suffered by the claimant and his family members also depend upon various factors, including the position of the claimant post accident, and whether, he is in a position to enjoy life and/or happiness which he was enjoying prior to the accident. The Court accordingly enhanced the compensation awarded to the claimant under the head loss of amenities and happiness.
What are the rules to be observed for making a proposal for insurance?
Manmohan Nanda v. United India Assurance Co. Ltd. and Ors. I(2022)CPJ20(SC)
Policy type- Overseas Mediclaim Policy-B
The Supreme Court while allowing an insurance claim of the insured under a mediclaim policy summarized the rules to be observed in making a proposal for insurance, namely, (a) a fair and reasonable construction must be put upon the language of the question which is asked, and the answer given will be similarly construed; (b) carelessness is no excuse, unless the error is so obvious that no one could be regarded as misled; (c) an answer which is literally accurate, so far as it extends, will not suffice if it is misleading by reason of what is not stated; (d) where the space for an answer is left blank, leaving the question un-answered, the reasonable inference may be that there is nothing to enter as an answer; (e) where an answer is unsatisfactory, as being on the face of it incomplete or inconsistent the insurers may, as reasonable men, be regarded as put on inquiry, so that if they issue a policy without any further enquiry they are assumed to have waived any further information; (f) a proposer may find it convenient to bracket together two or more questions and give a composite answer; (g) any answer given, however accurate and honest at the time it was written down, must be corrected if, up to the time of acceptance of the proposal, any event or circumstance supervenes to make it inaccurate or misleading.
Effect of delayed notification regarding theft of vehicle?
Jaina Construction Company v. The Oriental Insurance Company Limited and Ors. I(2022)CPJ119(SC)
Policy type- Motor Insurance Policy
The insurer repudiated the insured’s claim in toto on the ground that there was a delay in informing the insurance company regarding the theft of the vehicle. The condition in question mandated the insured to give immediate notice to the insurer of the accidental loss/damage but was given by the insured after a lapse of 5 months from the loss. Relying on Gurshinder Singh v. Shriram General Insurance Co. Ltd. and Anr. 2020 (11) SCC 612, the Supreme Court observed since the FIR was lodged immediately on the next day of the occurrence of theft of the vehicle by the insured and the vehicle could not be traced out, a delay of about five months in informing and lodging the claim with the insurer would not be fatal. The Court held that when the insurer has repudiated the claim only on the ground of delay, and the claim of the insured was not found to be not genuine, the insurer’s repudiation could not be sustained.
Duties of an insurer, when a policy holder seeks renewal of an existing policy?
Jacob Punnen and Ors. v. United India Insurance Co. Ltd. I(2022)CPJ87(SC)
Policy type- Medical Insurance Policy
The Supreme Court rejected the insurer’s argument that the consumer was under an obligation to inquire about the terms of the policy, and any changes that might have been introduced, in the standard terms. The state of the law as observed was that an insurer was under a duty to disclose any alteration in the terms of the contract of insurance, at the formation stage or as in this case, at the stage of renewal. The insurer cannot be heard to say that the insured was under an obligation to satisfy itself, if a new term had been introduced. In the facts of the case, the Court observed that medical or health insurance cover becomes crucial with advancing age; the policy holder is more likely to need cover; therefore, if there are freshly introduced limitations of liability, the insured may, if advised properly, and in a position to afford it, seek greater coverage, or seek a different kind of policy. Further, most policies - health and medical insurance policies being no exception, are in standard form. One who seeks coverage of a life policy/a personal risk, such as accident or health policy has little choice but to accept the offer of certain standard term contracts. Therefore, relying on the IRDA (Health Insurance) Regulations, 2016, the Court observed that it is the insurer's obligation to inform every policy holder, about any important changes that would affect her or his choice of product.
Can the Court adopt liberal interpretation while interpreting terms of the insurance policy?
Life Insurance Corporation of India and Ors. v. Sunita Life Insurance Corporation of India and Ors. (2022)1SCC68
Policy type- Life Insurance Policy under the Jeevan Suraksha Yojana
The accident claim benefit as per the terms of the insurance policy was payable only if the policy was in force on the date of the accident. In this case, the policy had lapsed at the time of accident and the premium was sought to be paid three days after occurrence of accident. However, the complainant contended that the premium was paid along with late fee charges and therefore, the policy had stood revived before the death of the complainant's husband. In rejecting the claim of the complainant, the Supreme Court relied upon its own decision in Vikram Greentech (I) Ltd. v. New India Assurance Co. Ltd. (2009) 5 SCC 599. In that case, the Court had observed that in a contract of insurance, there is requirement of uberrima fides i.e. good faith on the part of the insured. The four essentials of a contract of insurance are: (I) the definition of the risk, (ii) the duration of the risk, (iii) the premium, and (iv) the amount of insurance. Upon issuance of the insurance policy, the insurer undertakes to indemnify the loss suffered by the insured on account of the risks covered by the insurance policy. Accordingly, the Court held that terms of insurance policy have to be strictly construed, and it is not permissible to rewrite the contract while interpreting the terms of the Policy.
Authored by CSL Chambers, New Delhi: Sumeet Lall (Partner - Sumeet.Lall@cslchambers.com), Sidhant Kapoor (Senior Associate - Sidhant.Kapoor@cslchambers.com) – should you have any queries relating to the content of this insight piece or require further information, please don’t hesitate to contact us.