Maxwell v Highway Hauliers Pty Ltd

The High Court has dismissed an appeal against the decision of the WA Court of Appeal in Maxwell v Highway Hauliers Pty Ltd, relating to statutory provisions on the interpretation of insurance contracts. Highway Hauliers made insurance claims relating to damage to two of its trucks that were both rejected by the insurer on the basis that under the terms of the contract the drivers in question were not qualified or approved to have made those hauling runs, and that it therefore did not have to indemnify Highway Hauliers for the damage and repairs. It was established at trial that the lack of qualifications or approval did not cause the claimed loss. The WASCA upheld the trial judge’s finding that s 54 of the Insurance Contracts Act 1984 (Cth), which provides that an insurer may not refuse to pay a claim on the basis of breach of contract if that breach did not cause any part of the loss claimed, required the insurer to indemnify Highway Hauliers, and that their refusal to do so constituted a breach of contract.

Upholding the ruling of the WASCA, the High Court unanimously held that ‘claim’ is not limited to a claim for an insured risk. Applying the approach to construing s 54 taken in Antico v Heath Fielding Australia Pty Ltd [1997] HCA 35, the Court reiterated that the section focuses on the acts or omissions of the person insured not the legal character of a reason that might entitle the insurer to refuse to pay a claim (at [21]–[22]). Here, the insured’s omission (failing to ensure that the drivers were qualified) occurred after the insurance contract was entered into, and therefore occurred during the period of insurance: [26]. Section 54(1) was therefore engaged and the insurers could only refuse to pay those claims on the basis of acts that occurred after the contract was entered into: [27].

High Court Judgment [2014] HCA 33  10 September 2014
Result Appeal dismissed
High Court Documents Maxwell
Full Court Hearing [2014] HCATrans 158 6 August 2014
Special Leave Hearing [2014] HCATrans 51 14 March 2014
Appeal from WASCA [2013] WASCA 115  5 July 2013
Trial Judgment, WASC
[2012] WASC 53 21 February 2012