Attorneys from Saxe Doernberger & Vita
Attorneys from Saxe Doernberger & Vita ()

Saxe Doernberger & Vita leverages its specialized practice with a small but growing team to benefit its insurance clients to the tune of nearly $48 million a year in recoveries.

The Hamden-based insurance litigation boutique describes its practice as a “niche within a niche,” referring to its decision to solely represent policyholders in coverage disputes. But limiting the client base has not limited the work. In 2013, the firm opened 244 new files, added five attorneys and six staffers, and made commitments to hire two more lawyers in the early part of this year.

Saxe Doernberger’s focus on tailoring recovery strategies resulted in $47.5 million in recoveries for its clients last year—a figure the firm said it has matched or beat every year for the past five years. And not only does the firm recover money for its clients, it creates new law in the process, with one of its wins in 2013 informing courts in two other states deciding similar issues.

Saxe Doernberger’s enviable track record has landed the 15-lawyer shop a Litigation Departments of the Year Award in Insurance Law from the Connecticut Law Tribune.

The firm credits its litigation model for much of its success. It assigns a customized team to each file opened, grouping together a partner, associate and paralegal who make the most sense for that particular client and matter. The “adaptive” approach, according to the firm’s leaders, makes for better response time and a more consistent, efficient work product.

Litigation department chairman Edwin Doernberger said many firms assign a partner to work with a set team of associates across several cases. He said his firm has found allowing associates to work with a variety of different partners fosters more learning and diversity of thought.

Knowing the law isn’t something taken for granted at Saxe Doernberger. The lawyers are trained in-house through seminars and one-on-one mentoring. They’re also expected to spend several hours a year attending seminars on national insurance and risk management issues.

Risk management goes hand-in-hand with Saxe Doernberger’s litigation focus. The firm said its commercial clients have shown an interest in prevention programs aimed at avoiding insurance disputes. To that end, Saxe Doernberger has advised clients on modifying insurance policies and contractual risk transfer requirements, performing such consulting work in partnership with national insurance brokerage firms.

Partner Gregory D. Podolak explained that insurance brokers know the professionals on insurance company staffs.

“We recognized over the last few years that there is a dovetailing of interests between the work that we do and the services that insurance brokers provide, so we work with them and their established client base,” Podolak said.

The firm is often called in by longtime clients and first-time customers to offer advice on drafting insurance policies. About 17 percent of the firm’s revenue comes from counseling work, while the rest comes from litigation.

Although relatively small in attorney head count, Saxe Doernberger has national and international reach. In 2013, it litigated matters in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Virginia, California, Delaware, Texas and Mexico. The firm also handles appellate matters, appearing in 2013 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, New York state appellate courts and the Connecticut Supreme Court.

It was in the Connecticut Supreme Court that Saxe Doernberger achieved one of its most notable victories.

In Capstone Building v. American Motorists Insurance, the high court ruled in favor of Saxe Doernberger’s client Capstone Building Co., which had served as the general contractor for a new residence hall on the University of Connecticut’s Storrs campus. In 2004, UConn alleged that the building’s construction was defective, citing the work of subcontractors.

UConn and Capstone mediated a settlement. Capstone than sued American Motorists Insurance Co. to recoup damages paid to UConn. Commercial general liability policies generally state that policyholders cannot collect insurance payments unless “property damage” is caused by an “occurrence,” which is most often defined as an “accident.” Insurance companies have traditionally argued that defective construction and faulty workmanship is not accidental because contractors should know that they could be held financially responsible for a poor job.

The issue had been addressed in a number of states, but not in Connecticut. Courts have split on the issue, with most finding in favor of policyholders. The Connecticut Supreme Court followed the majority, citing the everyday meaning of the word “accident” as any event that is “unexpected or unintended.” Because defective work is unintended, the court rejected the idea that insurance coverage should be precluded.

After that ruling came down in favor of Sax Doernberger’s client, the Georgia and West Virginia supreme courts cited Capstone in their decisions.

Saxe Doernberger was involved in another notable case, this one in Maryland. The firm represented two contractors involved in a joint venture to construct a $900 million hotel and convention center. The $40 million dispute centered on whether an insurance company was obligated to pay for damages when the under-construction hotel’s 18-story glass atrium collapsed, resulting in delays in the project’s completion.

The Connecticut law firm fought for insurance coverage for the rare claim of scheduling impact costs. It was an issue never before addressed in Maryland courts, and the insurance company vehemently denied responsibility for covering damages related to construction delays, Saxe Doernberger said. The insurer fought for more than three-and-a-half years before a confidential settlement was reached in June 2013, a month before trial.

Doernberger said the firm’s focus on policyholders has “helped us to build a successful practice because we’re able to concentrate on a specific goal of our clients, which is to be able to get insurance coverage that they expect to get.”

A pretty simple philosophy that carries through a lot of complex matters.•