The Second Circuit appeals court recently examined the contours of New York’s economic loss rule in a dispute involving faulty actuarial services.
The plaintiff health care plan provider in MVP Health Plan, Inc. v. Optuminsight, Inc., 2019 WL 1504346 (2nd Cir. 2019) sued an actuary contractor for breach of contract and negligence when the actuary fell short of professional practice standards resulting in the health plan losing Medicare revenue.
The plaintiff appealed the district court’s bench trial verdict that limited plaintiff’s damages to the amounts it paid the actuary in 2013 (the year of the breach) and denied the plaintiff’s request for lost revenue.
The plaintiff also appealed the district court’s dismissal of its negligence count on the basis that it was duplicative of the breach of contract claim and the actuary owed the plaintiff no legal duty outside the scope of the contract.
Affirming, the Second Circuit first addressed the dismissal of plaintiff’s negligence claim. In New York, a breach of contract claim is not an independent tort (like negligence) unless the breaching party owes a legal duty to the non-breaching party independent of the contract. However, merely alleging a defendant’s breach of duty of care isn’t enough to bootstrap a garden variety contract claim into a tort.
Under New York law, an actuary is not deemed a “professional” for purposes of a malpractice cause of action and no case authorities saddle an actuary with a legal duty to its client extraneous to a contract. In addition, the court found the alleged breach did not involve “catastrophic consequences,” a “cataclysmic occurrence” or a “significant public interest” – all established bases for a finding of an extra-contractual duty.
Next, and while tacitly invoking Hadley v. Baxendale,  EWHC Exch J70, the seminal 19th Century British court case involving consequential damages, the appeals court jettisoned the plaintiff’s lost revenues claim.
Breach of contract damages aim to put the plaintiff in the same financial position he would have occupied had the breaching party performed. “General” contract damages are those that are the “natural and probable consequence of” a breach of contract. Lost profits are unrecoverable consequential damages where the losses stem from collateral business arrangements.
To recover lost revenues as consequential damages, the plaintiff must establish (1) that damages were caused by the breach, (2) the extent of those damages with reasonable certainty, and (3) the damages were within the contemplation of the parties during contract formation.
To determine whether consequential damages were within the parties’ reasonable contemplation, the court looks to the nature, purpose and peculiar circumstances of the contract known by the parties and what liability the defendant may be supposed to have assumed consciously.
The court found that plaintiffs lost revenues were not damages naturally arising from defects in actuarial performance. Instead, it held those claimed damages were twice removed from the breach: they stemmed from plaintiff’s contracts with its member insureds. And since there was no evidence the parties contemplated the defendant would be responsible for the plaintiff’s lost revenues if the defendant breached the actuarial services agreement, the plaintiff’s lost profits damage claim was properly dismissed.
MVP provides a useful primer on breach of contract damages, when lost profits are recoverable as general damages and the economic loss rule.
The case cements the proposition that where there is nothing inherent in the contract terms or the parties’ relationship that gives rise to a legal duty, the non-breaching party likely cannot augment its breach of contract action with additional tort claims.