N.B. closing loophole allowing insurance companies to deny payouts to domestic violence victims

New Brunswick is moving to change its laws to stop insurance companies from denying payouts to victims of domestic abuse whose angry or vindictive spouses set fire to their shared family homes.

New Brunswick latest to rethink laws following CBC investigation into cases of domestic arson

This is a photo of Terri-lynn Robison's bedroom. The Ontario woman's house was destroyed when her husband set the bed on fire. Allstate initially denied her claim, but following a CBC News investigation, the company reached a settlement with her. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

New Brunswick is moving to change its laws to stop insurance companies from denying payouts to victims of domestic abuse whose angry or vindictive spouses set fire to their shared family homes.

The province will be the first in Atlantic Canada to make the change, something also being considered in Ontario.  

It comes in the wake of a CBC News investigation, which found dozens of cases across Canada where insurance companies denied claims from domestic violence victims, including one case where a woman was set on fire by her husband.

New Brunswick Finance Minister Cathy Rogers told CBC News that domestic violence victims are left vulnerable because of a loophole in the current legislation, where the law doesn't compel insurance companies to protect the innocent people who are co-insured on a policy.

"Now with this, that exclusion clause will not be an out for the insurance companies," said Rogers.    

The amendments to the Insurance Act are expected to be introduced on Wednesday. The changes are expected to come into effect immediately after the bill's proclamation.

"Domestic violence does exist and we just want to be able to have one more tool here, to be able to protect the innocent co-insureds," she said.  

British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec already have similar laws, whereas Saskatchewan and Atlantic provinces have no such protections.

New Brunswick Finance Minister Cathy Rogers says the province is proposing changes to its Insurance Act on Wednesday in order to protect innocent co-insureds in cases of intimate partner violence. (Pat Richard/CBC)

"We want to be proactive and join forces with those other provinces," said Rogers.

CBC News has found some major insurance companies already choose to pay innocent claimants regardless of provincial laws.

But some of the biggest insurance companies in the country have resisted extending coverage to co-insured victims of domestic violence.

Intact Insurance, which collects $8 billion in annual premiums on property insurance policies, told CBC News in April it paid out claims in these cases only in the provinces where it is mandatory. However, following CBC's investigation and discussions within the industry, they amended their policy.

In April, a Toronto MPP introduced a private member's bill to close Ontario's loopholes and force insurers to pay out claims to innocent victims of arson or other property damage. Saskatchewan expects to have a law in place early next year.

A need for change

Michèle Pelletier, consumer advocate for insurance, has been pushing government for these changes since the CBC investigation.

"With this new amendment you won't be excluded if you're an innocent co-insured … you're going to be able to receive your insurance money if something happens," said Pelletier. 

She said the amendment will cover an innocent co-insured and pay for their portion of the loss. Meanwhile, the individual who caused damage to their home won't get any money, she said. 

Pelletier confirmed there is at least one ongoing case right now, where a co-insured has been the victim of property damage. 

Rogers had no knowledge of this case. 

"It doesn't happen that frequently," she said. "But when it does it's devastating for the innocent co-insured, they're left with nothing." 

She said many things have been put in place for domestic violence victims recently, and this is just one more helpful piece of the puzzle. 

Closing the gap

Earlier this year, the Insurance Bureau of Canada's (IBC) board of directors recommended that IBC's members operating in both Ontario and the Atlantic provinces "voluntarily align their home insurance policies with other jurisdictions when it comes to protecting innocent co-insureds."

"These are tragic stories and insurers can take immediate action to close this gap," said Don Forgeron, IBC president and chief executive officer, in May.

Rogers said both the Insurance Bureau of Canada and insurance companies have been supportive. 

"So we're just following recommendations from good practices. It really is a win-win," she said. 

New Brunswick's proposed amendments have been developed in partnership with the Office of the Consumer Advocate for Insurance, the Financial and Consumer Services Commission and the Women's Equality Branch.

"It's very positive move for innocent co-insureds in these situations," said Angela Mazerolle, superintendent of insurance with the Financial and Consumer Services Commission in New Brunswick. 

"Anything that can be done to protect the victims is a positive step."

With files from Julia Whalen and Nathalie Sturgeon