Dr. Maria Anghel v. Utica Mutual Insurance Company

On January 31, 2010, a flood occurred at the two-story medical practice building located at 2410 Hempstead Bethpage Turnpike in East Meadow and owned by plaintiff Maria Anghel.  The cause of the floor was determined to be the bursting of a sprinkler system pipe due to freezing of the water inside the pipe. The flood reportedly caused structural damage to the building – which housed a practice known as “Interventional Pain Management Center” – along with damage to certain pieces of medical equipment. After the flood, Anghel filed a claim with her insurer, Utica Mutual. The carrier disclaimed coverage, and Anghel sued for breach of contract. The terms of the policy stated that Utica Mutual was not obligated to provide coverage “for leaks or flows from plumbing, heating, air conditioning or other equipment (except fire protective systems) caused by or resulting from freezing” unless Anghel did her “best to maintain heat in the building or structure”. However, Anghel’s policy further required that she “maintain” an automated sprinkler system, or similar form of anti-fire protection.

Anghel was traveling in Europe at the time of the flood, having left the U.S. roughly one week before it occurred. She claimed that before leaving on her trip, she personally set the temperature in the building at 50 degrees Fahrenheit for the second floor and 48 degrees for the first floor. Her suit alleged that because she had taken care to ensure a non-freezing level of heat in the building, Utica Mutual could not deny that she had done her best to maintain the building’s sprinkler system.

Counsel for Anghel noted during the liability phase of a bifurcated trial that Anghel had had a contract with an independent contractor regarding maintenance of the sprinkler system, and argued that any ambiguity regarding the meaning of the word “maintain”, as used in the underlying policy, should be construed in favor of the policyholder. The defense’s heating-systems expert opined that, based on his review of utility bills and similar records for the property during the relevant time period, the heat at the premises had been completely off at the time the flood occurred. Defense counsel cross-examined Anghel as to the fact that her license to practice medicine in New York had been revoked by the New York State Board for Professional Medical Misconduct roughly five months prior to the January 2010 flood. (Because the underlying charges included fraudulent practice, this line of cross-examination by defense counsel was not susceptible to objection by opposing counsel). In response to defense counsel’s questions, Anghel – who had been board certified in anesthesiology and pain management – contended that she was innocent of the professional-misconduct charges that led to her license revocation. Defense counsel argued during summation that if Anghel had set the temperature in the building to roughly 50 degrees prior to departing for Europe, that would have constituted adequate maintenance of the sprinkler system, but the evidence showed that the heat had been turned off prior to the flood.

Injuries/Damages

According to Anghel, the flood caused roughly $300,000 worth of damage, resulting mainly from structural damage, but also from damage to some of her medical equipment. Anghel’s policy with Utica Mutual featured coverage limits of nearly $546,000 for building replacement, and nearly $31,000 for the contents of the building.

Result

After a three day long liability phase, the jury deliberated for roughly one hour before rendering a defense verdict. The jurors found that Anghel had failed to maintain the building’s sprinkler system pursuant to the terms of the policy.

Case Notes

Supreme Court of the State of New York – County of Nassau
Index No.: 3157/11
Judge: Thomas Feinman
Defense Verdict – April 29, 2013
Responsible Partner: Randy S. Faust
Client: Utica Mutual Insurance Company
Opposing Counsel: Bruce H. Lederman, D’Agostino, Landesman & Lederman, LLP, New York, NY