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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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If an Insurer Denies a Claim on a Sunken Boat, What Can the Lender Do?


Posted: July 3, 2013  |  By: David Weil, Esq.

I purchased a vessel and originated a loan with an institutional lender in 2003. My signed loan agreement was called a "Security Agreement, Note and Disclosure Statement." The boat was documented with the Coast Guard and the mortgage was recorded when I purchased the boat. In 2007, the boat sank and, unfortunately, my insurance company denied the claim. The denial led to a lawsuit against my insurance company, which I eventually lost in 2010. After the conclusion of the lawsuit, my lender submitted a notarized "Satisfaction of Preferred Ship Mortgage" to the Coast Guard, and I assumed at that point that the entire matter was finally over. However, several months ago, I was served with a lawsuit from a company that had apparently purchased my loan from the original lender, claiming that I still owe a substantial balance on the note. With all of this in mind, I have a few legal questions. First, can a lender pursue a balance on a note after a after a Satisfaction of Mortgage has been recorded with the Coast Guard? If so, does the recording of that document have any legal effect at all? Do I need to file something other than a Satisfaction of Mortgage? 
Our reader is experiencing one of the most painful legal procedures that a boat owner can face. His insurance company denied a claim on a boat that was a total loss, but he still owes money on the boat to his bank. His confusion about the current status of his loan is probably due to a misunderstanding of two concepts: The relationship between an insurance company and a lender, and the function and legal effect of a mortgage recorded with the Coast Guard.            

Most of us have purchased property with the help of a bank loan. And, whether the property is a boat, a car or a home, we accept the fact that the lender will require the property to be insured and the lender to be named as “loss payee” on the insurance policy.

This protects both the lender and the property owner in the event of a catastrophic loss, since the insurance proceeds will be used to pay off the loan and the owner/borrower won’t be saddled with payments for property that he or she no longer owns. This arrangement works perfectly, unless the loss is caused by an act or omission that leads to a denial of insurance coverage.            

A marine insurance claim may be denied for a variety of reasons, but most denials are based on a failure of the boat owner to maintain the part or parts that caused the loss. This is not always a straight-forward analysis, since the cause of the loss and the adequacy of the maintenance may both be disputed, and claim denials therefore often lead to litigation.            

As noted above, the loss payee listed on an insurance policy enjoys certain benefits from that policy, but the burden that is felt in the event of a claim denial falls solely on the property owner. When our reader’s litigation was unsuccessful and the claim denial was upheld, he had an unpaid balance on his loan -- and that balance did not go away.            

Our reader’s other area of confusion concerns the function and legal effect of a mortgage recorded with the Coast Guard. A Preferred Ship Mortgage is a legal device that secures an obligation of the vessel owner by encumbering the title of the vessel until the underlying obligations are satisfied.            

A Satisfaction of Mortgage is a document that is filed with the Coast Guard to release the vessel from those obligations, but the document has no bearing whatsoever on the underlying obligations of the boat owner. When the document is filed, the boat is no longer collateral for the loan, but the loan itself does not go away.            

In this case, since the boat was destroyed and therefore had no value as collateral, the lender may have filed a Satisfaction of Mortgage simply as a housekeeping item, to clean up its books. But our reader’s obligations remain unchanged, and he will need to deal with the new owner of the loan.            

As I noted at the beginning of this article, an insurance claim denial on a boat with an unpaid loan balance is one of the most painful experiences that any boat owner can endure. Insurance policies are not a particularly exciting form of literature, but most policies are written in relatively plain English -- and they should be required reading for every boat owner.            

Compliance with the provisions of a marine insurance policy are critical, and all boat owners should familiarize themselves with those provisions to avoid a scenario such as the one described above. Contact a maritime attorney, if any of those policy provisions are unclear.
David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and, as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.
David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (www.weilmaritime.com) in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. He is also one of a small group of attorneys to be certified as an Admiralty and Maritime Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at (562) 438-8149 or at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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