A recent decision from Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals, Desai v. Seneca Specialty Insurance Company, WD81220, involves retroactive vs. prospective application of certain amendments to § 537.065, RSMo. That statue allows a claimant and a tort-feasor to contract to limit recovery against the tort-feasor. It permits any person with a claim for damages against a tort-feasor to enter into an agreement with that tortfeasor whereby, in consideration of the payment of some amount, the claimant would agree that in the event of a judgment against the tort-feasor, he would limit his recovery as against the tort-feasor to the amounts of the insurance policy. Amendments to that statute, effective August 28, 2017, provide new protections to the insurer in the context of these agreement, which are often used to set up claims against an insurer for bad faith refusal to settle. Under the 2017 amendments, before a judgment may be entered against any tort-feasor who has reached such an agreement with a claimant, an insurer must be provided with written notice of the execution of the contract and must be given thirty days after receipt of the notice to intervene as a matter of right in any pending litigation involving the claim for damages. The pre-August 28, 2017, statute contains no such protections for the insurer. The rights to notice and to intervene contained in the amendments is important, therefore, because it seemingly allows the insurer to contest both liability and damages, and possibly coverage issues, as part of the underlying litigation.
In Desai v. Seneca Specialty Insurance Co., Seneca sought to intervene in the lawsuit filed by Neil and Heta Desai against Seneca’s insured, Garcia Empire, LLC. In October 2014, Neil Desai suffered a personal injury while being escorted from a Garcia Empire establishment. The Desais filed suit in May 2016, and Garcia advised Seneca of the suit. Seneca offered to defend Garcia subject to a full and complete reservation of rights regarding coverage, but Garcia rejected Seneca’s offer. In November 2016, the Desais and Garcia entered into a contract under § 537.065 wherein the Desais agreed to limit recovery of any judgment against Garcia to its insurance coverage.
The parties tried the case on August 17, 2017, and the court entered judgment in favor of the Desais and against Garcia on October 2, 2017. Within 30 days of the entry of judgment, Seneca filed a motion to intervene as a matter of right, arguing it was entitled to receive notice of the § 537.065 contract between Garcia and the Desais and to intervene as a matter of right in the lawsuit based on the August 28, 2017, amendments to § 537.065.
The trial court denied the motion to intervene, holding the legislature did not expressly provide for the August 2017 amendments of § 537.065 to be applied to proceedings had or commenced under the statute prior to the amendment. The court of appeals affirmed.
The appellate court rejected Seneca’s argument that the August 28, 2017, amendments applied because the judgment had been entered after the effective date. The plain language of the amended statute provides that an insurer shall be given notice and an opportunity to intervene before a judgment may be entered against any tort-feasor “after such tort-feasor has entered into a contract under this section.” Thus, the trigger point is the entry of the contract, not the date of the judgment.
The appellate court also rejected Seneca’s argument that the 2017 amendments could apply to contracts entered before that date because the changes to the statute regarding notice and intervention were merely procedural and not a substantive change in the law. When Garcia and the Desais entered into their § 537.065 contract, however, Seneca had no right to notice and no standing to intervene as a matter of right. Yet, after the amendments, an insurer would have such standing and have the right to notice. Thus, that section, as amended, creates new legal rights in favor of an insurer which did not exist prior to the amendments. It also imposes new obligations and duties upon the insured, giving a contract entered before August 28, 2017, a different effect from that which it had when entered. Application of these amendments to contracts executed before August 28, 2017, therefore, would be impermissibly retrospective in nature, i.e., it would affect past transactions to the substantial prejudice of the parties.
Thus, the appellate court concluded the notice and intervention provisions of amended § 537.065 apply prospectively only to § 537.065 contracts executed after the effective date of the amendments, August 28, 2017. For contracts entered before that date, such as that at issue in this case, the insurer does not have the protection of the new notice provision and the option to intervene as a matter of right. This opinion reaches only these two specific portions of the August 28, 2017, amendments to § 537.065. It remains to be seen how appellate courts will address the retroactive application of other portions, but this opinion gives some good insight into how the Western District is likely to approach the issue.