Wal-Mart's "Dead Peasant" suit against insurers escapes the grave a third time

 

Between December 1993 and July 1995, Wal-Mart bought life insurance policies on 350,000 employees and named itself the policies’ beneficiary. Dissatisfied with the return on its investment, Wal-Mart, in 2002, sued the insurers and brokers that sold the policies, including Hartford Life Insurance Company and AIG Life Insurance Company. Three times the Delaware trial court has dismissed Wal-Mart’s case. And three times—most recently on May 12, 2009—the Delaware Supreme Court has reinstated it.

Wal-Mart’s case was first dismissed on statute of limitations grounds by Delaware’s Court of Chancery. The Delaware Supreme Court reversed that dismissal, holding that whether Wal-Mart's suit was time-barred could not be decided on the pleadings.  On remand, the Court of Chancery granted the insurers’ renewed motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Wal-Mart's claims, except for its claim of equitable fraud. Following the second remand, the case was transferred to the Superior Court, where Wal-Mart again amended its complaint to assert only a common-law fraud claim alleging that it was induced to acquire the policies (sometimes called “corporate-owned life insurance,” “COLI,” “dead peasant” or “janitor” insurance) by the insurers’ fraudulent misrepresentation and concealment of the full magnitude of the tax risks associated with certain policy features, which Wal-Mart calls “structural flaws.”

On October 28, 2008, the Superior Court dismissed Wal-Mart’s case a third time on the ground that Wal-Mart's fraud claim was time-barred under the applicable three-year limitations period.  It also held that Wal-Mart's claim accrued, at the latest, when Wal-Mart made its final COLI purchase in July 1995, and thus expired three years later. The Superior Court also held that the statute of limitations was not tolled by the "discovery rule" because the record showed that the factual basis of Wal-Mart's fraud claim was knowable and known to Wal-Mart long before September 3, 1999 (three years before the date that Wal-Mart filed this lawsuit).

On May 12, 2009, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court ruling and reinstated Wal-Mart’s case a third time when it held:

This 12th day of May 2009, upon consideration of the briefs of the parties and their contentions at oral argument, it appears to the Court that there are material issues of fact as to whether Appellants' alleged injuries were inherently unknowable and whether Appellants were blamelessly ignorant of Appellees' alleged fraud of understating the tax risks associated with Appellants' Corporate-Owned Life Insurance program. These material issues of fact preclude summary judgment on the Statute of Limitations, 10 Del. C. § 8106, in favor of Appellees.

Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, the case will be returned to the Superior Court where the parties will continue litigation.

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