In the recent case of AIG Insurance Hong Kong Ltd v Lynn McCullough and William McCullough [2019] HKCFI 1649, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance (CFI) considered the effect of an arbitration agreement under an insurance policy and, in particular, the circumstances in which an anti-suit injunction may be granted to restrain a party from pursuing foreign proceedings.

The CFI held that, as a matter of Hong Kong law, a party is not entitled to found a claim on rights arising out of an insurance policy without also being bound by the dispute resolution provisions in the policy. The CFI went on to hold that an anti-suit injunction will ordinarily be granted to restrain such a claimant from pursuing proceedings in a non-contractual forum unless there are strong reasons to the contrary.

The full judgment is available here.

BACKGROUND

The underlying facts of the case relate to an accident which took place whilst Mrs Lynn McCullough and Mr William McCullough were on holiday in the Caribbean in 2015. During that holiday, Mrs McCullough suffered a fall from a zip line, owned and operated by Rain Forest Adventures (Holdings) Ltd, Rain Forest Sky Rides Ltd and Rain Forest Tram Ltd (together, Rain Forest), and was rendered permanently quadriplegic.

AIG Insurance Hong Kong Ltd (AIG) had previously issued a Directors’ and Officers’ Liability Insurance Policy to Rain Forest (the Policy). The Policy covered Rain Forest (as the policyholder) and its directors, including a Mr Harald Joachim von der Goltz. The Policy referred any disputes arising under the Policy to arbitration in Hong Kong under the rules of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC).

On 15 January 2016, the McCulloughs commenced a claim in the Florida courts against several defendants, including Rain Forest, alleging negligence in the operation of the zip line excursion. They sought damages for the injuries that Mrs McCullough sustained.

On 14 July 2016, the McCulloughs filed a Second Amended Complaint adding Mr von der Goltz as a defendant, who subsequently gave notice to AIG that he was seeking an indemnity under the Policy as a director of the policy holder. The claim was rejected by AIG on the basis that claims resulting from a bodily injury were excluded under the Policy.

On 24 April 2018, a dispute resolution agreement was entered into by the McCulloughs and the Rain Forest defendants now including Mr von der Goltz. This agreement was approved by the Florida court which referred the matter to arbitration. The arbitration award was subsequently issued on 28 May 2018 and judgment was entered into on 12 July 2018 in favour of the McCulloughs against, among others, Mr von der Goltz, in the sum of US$ 65.5 million.

On 20 August 2018, the McCulloughs filed the Third Amended Complaint adding AIG as a defendant. The Third Amended Complaint contained a “common law tort claim available under Florida law against [AIG] for having failed to act in good faith in handling, litigating, and settling the US Proceedings, resulting in an excess judgment (i.e. judgment in excess of Policy limits) being entered into against the insured, Mr. von der Goltz” (the Bad Faith Claim). The nature of the Bad Faith Claim was that if AIG had honoured the Policy and provided Mr von der Goltz with US$ 5 million in coverage (i.e. the Policy limit), it would have been possible for him to have settled the McCulloughs’ claim. It was submitted that this failure by AIG exposed Mr von der Goltz to a liability of US$ 65.5 million and as a result, he had a claim against AIG for this amount. The right to claim directly against AIG for the US$ 65.5 million was said to be based on the McCulloughs being judgment creditors of Mr von der Goltz.

In the instant case, there were two applications before the CFI:

  1. An application from AIG for a continuation of an ex parte injunction originally issued on 18 December 2018 by DHCJ Simon Leung restraining the McCulloughs from pursuing proceedings in the Florida courts against AIG on the basis that the Policy provides that all disputes regarding coverage under the Policy should be settled by arbitration in Hong Kong under the HKIAC Rules; and
  2. An application from the McCulloughs for, amongst other things, (1) a declaration that the CFI should not exercise any jurisdiction that it may have; and (2) an order staying the action in the Hong Kong courts in favour of the proceedings in the Florida courts.

AIG’s position was that the underlying issue of coverage under the Policy should be determined by arbitration in Hong Kong under the HKIAC rules, irrespective of whether or not the McCulloughs were the insured under the Policy.

The McCullough’s position was that their cause of action against AIG was a freestanding tortious claim and that, as non-parties to the Policy, they cannot be compelled to arbitrate it.

Accordingly, the principal question for the CFI to decide was whether the proceedings commenced by the McCulloughs in the Florida courts, despite the McCulloughs not being parties to the Policy, amounted in substance to a claim to enforce the Policy such that the McCulloughs were bound by the agreement to arbitrate as set out in the Policy.

DECISION

The CFI accepted the position of AIG that the dispute was to be resolved in accordance with the dispute resolution procedure provided for in the Policy, namely by arbitration in Hong Kong under the HKIAC rules, and exercised its equitable jurisdiction to grant an anti-suit injunction restraining the McCulloughs from pursuing proceedings in the Florida courts.

The CFI held that the relevant issue for the purposes of determining whether the anti-suit injunction should be granted was whether there was coverage under the Policy: “Such issue is clearly contractual, since it determines the liability of the insurer to the insured under the terms of the policy“. The CFI went on to hold that the establishment of coverage is a pre-condition to the Bad Faith Claim against AIG and, as a matter of Hong Kong law, the governing law of the Policy, AIG is entitled to have it determined in accordance with the contractual procedure.

In this regard, the CFI followed the principle applied in Qingdao Huiquan Shipping Company v Shanghai Dong He Xin Industry Group Co Ltd [2018] EWHC 3009 (Comm) that a party “is not entitled to found a claim on rights arising out of a contract without also being bound by the forum provisions of that contract“.

The CFI concluded that an anti-suit injunction will ordinarily be granted to restrain a claimant from pursuing proceedings in a non-contractual forum unless there are strong reasons to the contrary, whether the claimant is a party to the policy or not. The basis of the CFI’s decision was that a dispute resolution provision is an essential part of the contractual basis upon which coverage arises under an insurance policy, and a party seeking to enforce a policy cannot do so free of its contractual dispute resolution mechanism.

COMMENTS

This case serves as a useful reminder of the Hong Kong courts’ desire to give effect to an arbitration agreement wherever appropriate, albeit on this occasion in somewhat unusual circumstances. In so doing, the CFI has further reinforced Hong Kong’s reputation as a pro-arbitration jurisdiction.

In making its decision, the CFI has helpfully confirmed that an anti-suit injunction to restrain a party from pursuing proceedings in a non-contractual forum will ordinarily only be denied if there are strong reasons not to grant it. Accordingly, the Court has emphasised the high bar that the counter-party has to meet in order to resist such an injunction.

May Tai
May Tai
Managing Partner, Greater China
+852 2101 4031
Simon Chapman
Simon Chapman
Partner, Hong Kong
+852 2101 4217
Kathryn Sanger
Kathryn Sanger
Partner, Hong Kong
+852 2101 4029
Madhu Krishnan
Madhu Krishnan
Registered Foreign Lawyer (England & Wales)
+852 2101 4207