5 Mar 2010

Subrogation: The concept understood

In a recent decision, inter alia examining the nature of insurance contracts and the inter se relationships in a contract of insurance, in a recently pronounced decision a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court has almost exhaustively explained the concept of subrogation as pivotal in a contract of insurance. The Bench noted the principles of subrogation as under;
11. A contract of insurance is a contract of indemnity. The loss/damage to the goods covered by a policy of insurance, may be caused either due to an act for which the owner (assured) may not have a remedy against any third party (as for example when the loss is on account of an act of God) or due to a wrongful act of a third party, for which he may have a remedy against such third party (as for example where the loss is on account of negligence of the third party). In both cases, the assured can obtain reimbursement of the loss, from the insurer. In the first case, neither the assured, nor the insurer can make any claim against any third party. But where the damage is on account of negligence of a third party, the assured will have the right to sue the wrongdoer for damages; and where the assured has obtained the value of the goods lost from the insurer in pursuance of the contract of insurance, the law of insurance recognizes as an equitable corollary of the principle of indemnity that the rights and remedies of the assured against the wrong-doer stand transferred to and vested in the insurer. The equitable assignment of the rights and remedies of the assured in favour of the insurer, implied in a contract of indemnity, known as ‘subrogation’, is based on two basic principles of equity :
(a) No tort-feasor should escape liability for his wrong; (b) No unjust enrichment for the injured, by recovery of compensation for the same loss, from more than one source. The doctrine of subrogation will thus enable the insurer, to step into the shoes of the assured, and enforce the rights and remedies available to the assured.
14. Subrogation, as an equitable assignment, is inherent, incidental and collateral to a contract of indemnity, which occurs automatically, when the insurer settles the claim under the policy, by reimbursing the entire loss suffered by the assured. It need not be evidenced by any writing. But where the insurer does not settle the claim of the assured fully, by reimbursing the entire loss, there will be no equitable assignment of the claim enabling the insurer to stand in the shoes of the assured, but only a right to recover from the assured, any amount remaining out of the compensation recovered by the assured from the wrongdoer, after the assured fully recovers his loss. To avoid any dispute with the assured as to the right of subrogation and extent of its rights, the insurers usually reduce the terms of subrogation into writing in the form of a Letter of Subrogation which enables and authorizes the insurer to recover the amount settled and paid by the insurer, from the third party wrong-doer as a Subrogee-cum-Attorney. When the insurer obtains an instrument from the assured on settlement of the claim, whether it will be a deed of subrogation, or subrogation-cum-assignment, would depend upon the intention of parties as evidenced by the wording of the document. The title or caption of the document, by itself, may not be conclusive. It is possible that the document may be styled as ‘subrogation’ but may contain in addition an assignment in regard to the balance of the claim, in which event it will be a deed of subrogation-cum-assignment. It may be a pure and simple subrogation but may inadvertently or by way of excessive caution use words more appropriate to an assignment. If the terms clearly show that the intention was to have only a subrogation, use of the words “assign, transfer and abandon in favour of” would in the context be construed as referring to subrogation and nothing more. 
15. We may, therefore, classify subrogations under three broad categories: (i) subrogation by equitable assignment; (ii) subrogation by contract; and (iii) subrogation-cumassignment.
15.1) In the first category, the subrogation is not evidenced by any document, but is based on the insurance policy and the receipt issued by the assured acknowledging the full settlement of the claim relating to the loss. Where the insurer has reimbursed the entire loss incurred by the assured, it can sue in the name of the assured for the amount paid by it to the assured. But where the insurer has reimbursed only a part of the loss, in settling the insurance claim, the insurer has to wait for the assured to sue and recover compensation from the wrongdoer; and when the assured recovers compensation, the assured is entitled to first appropriate the same towards the balance of his loss (which was not received from the insurer) so that he gets full reimbursement of his loss and the cost, if any, incurred by him for such recovery. The insurer will be entitled only to whatever balance remaining, for reimbursement of what it paid to the assured.
15.2) In the second category, the subrogation is evidenced by an instrument. To avoid any dispute about the right to claim reimbursement, or to settle the priority of inter-se claims or to confirm the quantum of reimbursement in pursuance of the subrogation, and to ensure co-operation by the assured in suing the wrongdoer, the insurer usually obtains a letter of subrogation in writing, specifying its rights vis-à-vis the assured. The letter of subrogation is a contractual arrangement which crystallizes the rights of the insurer vis-à-vis the assignee. On execution of a letter of subrogation, the insurer becomes entitled to recover in terms of it, a sum not exceeding what was paid by it under the contract of insurance by suing in the name of the assured. Even where the insurer had settled only a part of the loss incurred by the assured, on recovery of the claim from the wrongdoer, the insurer may, if the letter of subrogation so authorizes, first appropriate what it had paid to the assured and pay only the balance, if any, to the assured. 
15.3) The third category is where the assured executes a letter of subrogation-cum-assignment enabling the insurer retain the entire amount recovered (even if it is more than what was paid to the assured) and giving an option to sue in the name of the assured or to sue in its own name. 
In all three types of subrogation, the insurer can sue the wrongdoer in the name of the assured. This means that the insurer requests the assured to file the suit/complaint and has the option of joining as co-plaintiff. Alternatively the insurer can obtain a special power of Attorney from the assured and then to sue the wrongdoer in the name of the assured as his attorney. The assured has no right to deny the equitable right of subrogation of the insurer in accordance with law, even whether there is no writing to support it. But the assured whose claim is settled by the insurer, only in respect of a part of the loss may insist that when compensation is recovered from the wrongdoer he will first appropriate the same, to recover the balance of his loss. The assured can also refuse to execute a subrogation-cum-assignment which has the effect of taking away his right to receive the balance of the loss. But once a subrogation is reduced to writing, the rights inter-se between the assured and insurer will be regulated by the terms agreed, which is a matter of negotiation between the assured and insurer.
16. If a letter of subrogation containing terms of assignment is to be treated only as an assignment by ignoring the subrogation, there may be the danger of document itself becoming invalid and unenforceable, having regard to the bar contained in section 6 of the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 (‘TP Act’ for short). Section 6 of Transport of Property Act, 1882, provides that property of any kind may be transferred except as otherwise provided by that Act or by any other law for the time being in force. Clause (e) of the said section provides that mere right to sue cannot be transferred. Section 130 provides the manner of transfer of actionable claims. Section 3 defines an ‘actionable claim’ as : (i) any debt (other than a debt secured by mortgage of immovable property or by hypothecation or pledge of movable property) or (ii) any beneficial interest is movable property not in the possession, either actual or constructive of the claimant, which the civil courts recognizes as affording grounds for relief. A ‘debt’ refers to an ascertained sum due from one person to another, as contrasted from unliquidated damages and claims for compensation which requires ascertainment/assessment by a Court or Tribunal before it becomes due and payable. A transfer or assignment of a mere right to sue for compensation will be invalid having regard to section 6(e) of the TP Act. But when a letter of subrogation-cum-assignment is executed, the assignment is interlinked with subrogation, and not being an assignment of a mere right to sue, will be valid and enforceable.
17. The principles relating to subrogation can therefore be summarized thus :
(i) Equitable right of subrogation arises when the insurer settles the claim of the assured, for the entire loss. When there is an equitable subrogation in favour of the insurer, the insurer is allowed to stand in the shoes of the assured and enforce the rights of the assured against the wrongdoer. 
(ii) Subrogation does not terminate nor puts an end to the right of the assured to sue the wrong-doer and recover the damages for the loss. Subrogation only entitles the insurer to receive back the amount paid to the assured, in terms of the principles of subrogation.
(iii) Where the assured executes a Letter of Subrogation, reducing the terms of subrogation, the rights of the insurer vis-à-vis the assured will be governed by the terms of the Letter of Subrogation.
(iv) A subrogation enables the insurer to exercise the rights of the assured against third parties in the name of the assured. Consequently, any plaint, complaint or petition for recovery of compensation can be filed in the name of the assured, or by the assured represented by the insurer as subrogee-cum-attorney, or by the assured and the insurer as co-plaintiffs or co-complainants. 
(v) Where the assured executed a subrogation-cum-assignment in favour of the insurer (as contrasted from a subrogation), the assured is left with no right or interest. Consequently, the assured will no longer be entitled to sue the wrongdoer on its own account and for its own benefit. But as the instrument is a subrogation-cum-assignment, and not a mere assignment, the insurer has the choice of suing in its own name, or in the name of the assured, if the instrument so provides. The insured becomes entitled to the entire amount recovered from the wrongdoer, that is, not only the amount that the insured had paid to the assured, but also any amount received in excess of what was paid by it to the assured, if the instrument so provides.
18. We may clarify the position with reference to the following illustration: The loss to the assured is Rs.1,00,000/-. The insurer settles the claim of the assured for Rs.75,000/-. The wrong-doer is sued for recovery of Rs.1,00,000/-. Where there is no letter of subrogation and insurer relies on the equaitable doctrine of subrogation (The suit is filed by the assured)
(i) If the suit filed for recovery of Rs.100,000/- is decreed as prayed, and the said sum of Rs.1,00,000/- is recovered, the assured would appropriate Rs. 25,000/- to recover the entire loss of Rs. 100,000/- and the doctrine of subrogation would enable the insurer to claim and receive the balance of Rs.75,000
(ii) If the suit filed for recovery of Rs.100,000/- is decreed as prayed for, but the assured is able to recover only Rs.50,000/- from the Judgment-Debtor (wrong-doer), the assured will be entitled to appropriate Rs.25,000/- (which is the shortfall to make up Rs.100,000/- being the loss) and the insurer will be entitled to receive only the balance of Rs. 25,000/- even though it had paid Rs. 75,000/- to the assured. 
(iii) Where, the suit is filed for recovery of Rs.100,000/- but the court assesses the loss actually suffered by the assured as only Rs.75,000/- (as against the claim of the assured that the value of goods lost is Rs.100,000/-) and then awards Rs.75,000/- plus costs, the insurer will be entitled to claim and receive the entire amount of Rs.75,000/- in view of the doctrine of subrogation. Where the assured executes a letter of subrogation entitling the insurer to recover Rs. 75,000/- (The suit is filed in the name of the assured or jointly by the assured and insurer).
(iv) If the suit is filed for recovery of Rs.1,00,000/-, and if the court grants Rs.1,00,000/-, the insurer will take Rs.75,000/- and the assured will take Rs.25,000/. 
(v) If the insurer sues in the name of the assured for Rs.75,000/- and recovers Rs.75,000/-, the insurer will retain the entire sum of Rs.75,000/- in pursuance of the Letter of Subrogation, even if the assured has not recovered the entire loss of Rs.1,00,000/-. If the assured wants to recover the balance of the loss of Rs.25,000/- as he had received only Rs. 75,000/- from the insurer, the assured should ensure that the claim is made against the wrongdoer for the entire sum of Rs.100,000/- by bearing the proportionate expense. Otherwise the insurer will sue in the name of the assured for only for Rs. 75,000/-. 
(vi) If the letter of subrogation executed by the assured when the insurer settles the claim of the assured uses the words that the “assured assigns, transfers and abandons unto the insurer, the right to get Rs.75,000/- from the wrong-doer”, the document will be a ‘subrogation’ in spite of the use of words ‘transfers, assigns and abandons’. This is because the insurer has settled the claim for Rs.75,000/- and the instrument merely entitles the insurer to receive the said sum of Rs.75,000/- which he had paid to the assured, and nothing more. Where the assured executes a letter of subrogation-cum-assignment for Rs.100,000/-
(vii) If the document executed by the assured in favour of the insured provides that in consideration of the settlement of the claim for Rs.75,000/-, the assured has transferred and assigned by way of subrogation and assignment, the right to recover the entire value of the goods lost and retain the entire amount without being accountable to the assured for any excess recovered (over and above Rs.75,000/-) and provides that the insurer may sue in the name of the assured or sue in its own name without reference to the assured, the instrument is a subrogation-cum-assignment and the insurer has the choice of either suing in the name of the assured or in its own name. Where the assured executes a letter of assignment in favour of a third party to sue and recover from the carrier, the value of the consignment
(viii) If the assured, having received Rs.75,000/- from the insurer, executes an instrument in favour of a third party (not being the insurer) assigning the right to sue and recover from the carrier, damages for loss of the consignment, such a document will be an Assignment. The assignee cannot file a complaint before the consumer fora, as he is not a ‘consumer’. Further, such a document being a transfer of a mere right to sue, will be void and unenforceable, having regard to section 6(e) of Transfer of Property Act, 1882. It is well settled that a right to sue for unliquidated damages for breach of contract or for tort, not being a right connected with the ownership of any property, nor being a right to sue for a debt or actionable claim, is a mere right to sue and is incapable of being transferred.

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