Lapham-Hickey Steel Corp. v. Protection Mut. Ins. Co.

Decision Date30 March 1994
Docket NumberNo. 1-92-3773,LAPHAM-HICKEY,1-92-3773
Citation199 Ill.Dec. 244,262 Ill.App.3d 400,633 N.E.2d 1235
Parties, 199 Ill.Dec. 244 STEEL CORPORATION, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. PROTECTION MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

McBride, Baker & Coles Chicago, (Geoffrey G. Gilbert, William J. Cooney of counsel), for appellant.

Tressler, Soderstrom, Maloney & Priess of Chicago, (Shaun Baldwin, Dawn Midkiff, of counsel), Zelle & Larson of Minneapolis, MN (Lawrence Zelle, Patricia St. Peter of counsel), for appellee.

Justice GREIMAN delivered the opinion of the court:

In this declaratory judgment action seeking a determination of the right to insurance coverage for environmental damage, plaintiff Lapham-Hickey Steel Corporation appeals the trial court's order which (1) granted summary judgment in favor of defendant Protection Mutual Insurance Company, finding that a provision in the policy requiring the filing of suit within 12 months of discovery was dispositive; and (2) denied partial summary judgment against plaintiff to defendant's duty to defend under the policy.

On appeal plaintiff raises two issues: (1) whether the 12-month suit limitation clause in the insurance policy barred plaintiff's action where no suit was ever filed; and (2) whether defendant's duty to defend arose from the circumstances relating to the contamination found on plaintiff's premises. In the alternative, plaintiff asserts that if no event had occurred to trigger defendant's duty to defend, then the trial court should have refused to decide the suit-limitation issue on the ground that it was not ripe.

We reverse and find that this action is not time barred by the 12-month suit limitation as applied in this case and that defendant's duty to defend was triggered by the threat of formal proceedings to impose liability on plaintiff for costs relating to the contaminated site.

In March 1985 plaintiff purchased a facility in St. Paul, Minnesota (hereinafter referred to as the site) and was not aware of any environmental problems at the site at the time of purchase. In April 1987 plaintiff entered into negotiations to sell the site.

About May 1, 1987, plaintiff received notice from Ecology and Environment, Inc., that it had been retained by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate and evaluate the site. About May 5, 1987, plaintiff received a report from Twin City Testing Corporation, an organization which had been retained by the prospective buyers of the site. The report indicated that there were potential environmental problems at the site.

On May 11, 1987, plaintiff gave written notice to defendant's agent (John Kegaly of T.J. Adams and Associates) about the pending EPA investigation and provided a copy of the Twin City Testing report.

In the summer of 1987, plaintiff was informed that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) would assume primary responsibility for the site. In July 1987 plaintiff retained an environmental consulting firm (Yates & Auberle) to provide advice in connection with the pending investigation of the site conducted jointly by the EPA and the MPCA.

On October 14, 1987, plaintiff obtained, through a Freedom of Information Act request, a copy of the EPA technical report which had been completed the previous month, September 1987.

Also in October 1987, plaintiff received from the MPCA a draft consent decree stating that (1) surface and subsurface soils were contaminated; (2) there was a potential for ground water contamination; and (3) plaintiff was a "responsible person," i.e., liable, under Minnesota statutes.

From December 1987 to January 1989, plaintiff's environmental consultants reviewed the EPA's findings, negotiated an agreement with the MPCA, conducted investigations of the site and issued a report to the MPCA. In December 1987, plaintiff's environmental consultants (Yates & Auberle) completed their review of the EPA report. For the next several months, plaintiff's environmental consultants met with the MPCA to reach an agreement whereby the MPCA would not seek entry of the October 1987 draft consent decree and, in return, plaintiff would conduct an investigation and assessment of the contamination at the site, subject to the approval of the MPCA. These negotiations resulted in a "no action" letter dated June 8, 1988, from the MPCA which also approved a work plan proposed by plaintiff whereby plaintiff, at its expense would conduct a remedial investigation of the contamination at the site. During the summer of 1988, work on this plan commenced. Plaintiff's environmental consultants prepared a report acknowledging the contamination but concluding that the origin of the contamination occurred sometime prior to 1962. This report was issued to the MPCA in January 1989.

From May 1988 to May 1989, plaintiff and defendant were in contact concerning the environmental claims. On May 18, 1988, plaintiff sent a letter to defendant advising defendant on "the status of the investigation." In June 1988 defendant requested further information from plaintiff. In January 1989 defendant arranged a meeting which was held in February 1989 to discuss plaintiff's claims. Defendant denied coverage on May 23, 1989.

On June 20, 1989, defendant agreed to extend the date for filing suit by plaintiff until January 1, 1990, with the following caveat:

"Subject to a reservation of all of its rights as may exist today and provided that suit is not presently barred by time, Protection Mutual Insurance is agreeable to an extension of the date for filing suit under its Policy 7113 to and including January 1, 1990. To the extent suit is barred by contract or other time limitations today, this extension of time is not applicable. Protection Mutual neither intends nor agrees by these extensions of time to revive any right or any action which might already be barred."

By a similar letter dated December 21, 1989, defendant agreed to extend the date for filing suit until March 30, 1990.

On March 14, 1990, plaintiff filed its complaint for declaratory judgment. An amended complaint was later filed on September 7, 1990.

On April 2, 1991, plaintiff filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of defendant's duty to defend plaintiff against the contamination claims brought by environmental agencies.

Subsequently defendant filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that plaintiff's action was time barred because plaintiff failed to institute suit within the 12-month limitation period provided in the insurance contract.

On September 29, 1992, the trial court addressed the cross-motions for summary judgment and found that the 12-month limitation period began to run in January 1989 when plaintiff received a report from its environmental consultants (Yates & Auberle) acknowledging the existence of contamination at the site. The trial court reasoned that a formal claim with the insurer could not be filed until after an investigation into the nature and extent of the contamination. Based on the January 1989 date of the commencement of the limitation period and the March 1990 date of filing the complaint, the trial court concluded that the 12-month "suit limitation provision is dispositive; [plaintiff] did not vigorously pursue its claim."

Alternatively, the trial court further found that "even if the suit limitation periods were held to be unenforceable for unreasonableness or waived, no event has occurred which would invoke coverage under Section 5," relating to the duty to defend. The trial court then granted summary judgment in favor of defendant and denied plaintiff's partial summary judgment motion regarding defendant's duty to defend.

On appeal the parties first address the validity and interpretation of the 12-month suit limitation provision which states in full:

"21. No suit, action or proceeding for the recovery of any claim under this Policy shall be sustainable in any court of law or equity unless the Insured shall have fully complied with all the requirements of this Policy, nor unless the same be commenced within twelve (12) months next after discovery by the Insured of the occurrence which gives rise to the claim, provided, however, that if under the laws of the jurisdiction in which the property is located such limitation is invalid, then any such claims shall be void unless such action, suit or proceedings be commenced within the shortest limit of time permitted by the laws of such jurisdiction." Emphasis added.

Plaintiff does not dispute the trial court's finding of January 1989 as the trigger date for the purpose of the commencement of the 12-month limitation period but asserts that the proper cut-off date for filing suit was March 30, 1990, based on the two extension agreements executed by defendant on June 20, 1989, extending the time for filing suit until January 1, 1990, and on December 21, 1989, extending the filing deadline until March 30, 1990. The trial court, plaintiff argues, ignored the extension agreements and thus miscalculated the relevant time period.

Alternatively, plaintiff asserts that (1) the 12-month limitation period is invalid under Minnesota law if the application of this limitation would bar the filing of this suit after October 1988 as contended by defendant, and (2) even if the limitation clause is valid, defendant either waived its right to enforce it or is estopped from enforcing it under Illinois law.

Defendant contends that the 12-month limitation was triggered between May 1, 1987 (when plaintiff learned that its site was the subject of an EPA investigation) and October 14, 1987 (when plaintiff obtained a site inspection report prepared by the EPA) because at some point during that time period plaintiff discovered the contamination which is the subject of its insurance claim. Thus, defendant maintains that the cut-off date could be no later than October...

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4 cases
  • Lapham-Hickey Steel Corp. v. Protection Mut. Ins. Co.
    • United States
    • Illinois Supreme Court
    • May 18, 1995 defend. The appellate court reversed, stating that Lapham-Hickey had alleged a valid and timely cause of action against Protection. (262 Ill.App.3d 400.) We granted leave to appeal (145 Ill.2d R. Between approximately 1910 and 1956, the Valentine-Clark Corporation operated a facility on ......
  • Lapham-Hickey Steel Corp. v. National Sur. Corp.
    • United States
    • United States Appellate Court of Illinois
    • April 29, 1994 we do, we are cognizant of the First District, Third Division's decision in Lapham-Hickey Steel Corp. v. Protection Mutual Insurance Co. (1st Dist. 1994), 262 Ill.App.3d 400, 199 Ill.Dec. 244, 633 N.E.2d 1235, which was issued one day prior to this decision. Although the result in Protec......
  • Tricentennial Eagle Lp v. Bankers Standard Insurance Co.
    • United States
    • Massachusetts Superior Court
    • July 24, 1997
    ...for the costs incurred to remediate the groundwater at the insured location. Bankers Standard points out, however, that Lapham-Hickey Steel Corp., supra, has been by the Illinois Supreme Court. See Lapham-Hickey Steel Corp. v. Protection Mut. Ins. Co., 655 N.E.2d 842 (Ill. 1995). In additio......
  • Lapham-Hickey Steel Corp. v. Protection Mut. Ins. Co.
    • United States
    • Illinois Supreme Court
    • September 1, 1994

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