A common enough scenario in a liability-insurance case: the parties file cross-motions for summary judgment, with the insurer arguing it has no duty to defend. In Acme United Corp. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. (7th Cir. Jan. 9, 2007), the question presented was whether an advertising injury liability insurance policy provided coverage for a suit against the insured for product disparagement. In Acme, the district court accepted the argument of the insurer, thus cutting off the ability of the policyholder to obtain recovery of the defense costs it had run up. Where, as here, the appellate court reverses and finds coverage, does the district court’s now-reversed ruling effectively impale the policyholder’s bad-faith claim?
Acme manufacturers scissors and paper trimming products and advertised that its products were better because they contained titanium. The question naturally arises — “better”? “better” than what? Fiskars, another scissors manufacturer, believed that Acme was dissing its products, and Fiskars sued on the ground that there really wasn’t titanium in Acme’s products or that it was negligible or not on the blade or didn’t keep Acme’s scissors extra sharp when tested against Fiskars’ products that used only stainless steel. Acme turned to St. Paul and asked for a defense, which St. Paul denied.
St. Paul’s policy provided coverage for “advertising injury offense” which was defined in part to be “[m]aking known . . . . material that disparages the . . . products of others.” The district court agreed with Acme that its promotional materials constituted advertising and were disparaging of stainless-steel blades, but granted summary judgment to St. Paul on the ground that the disparagement was not of Fiskars’ products specifically.
The Seventh Circuit agreed that the advertising by Acme was disparaging, finding that disparagement results when a “false comparison” is made or when advertising “bring[s] reproach . . . by comparing with something inferior.’” Slip op. at 6 (citing dictionaries). In looking at Fiskars’ complaint against Acme, the appeals court reasoned that “[w]hile Fiskars did not allege that Acme actually named Fiskars’ products in the text of its advertisement, Fiskars’ underlying complaint specifically alleged that Acme’s advertisements were directed at Fiskars’ products and that Fiskars lost sales to Acme as a result.” Slip op. at 7. Accordingly, “Acme disparaged Fiskars products through a false comparison between its products and [implicitly] Fiskars’ products.” Id. As a result, even assuming that the policy requires a specific “other” in the disparaging of “products of others,” the complaint alleged sufficient facts to indicate the disparagement was of Fiskars even without Fiskars being named. As a result, the Seventh Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of St. Paul and directed that summary judgment on the duty to defend be instead granted to Acme. (Any further argument that the Acme’s ads were not sufficiently focused on Fiskars instead of the broad class of paper-cutting devices presumably should be advanced in the underlying case that should be being defended by the insurer.)
When St. Paul won at the trial court on its motion for summary judgment, we can assume that the district judge endevored to construe the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Acme, construed any uncertain or ambiguous policy language in favor of the insured, Acme, but concluded that St. Paul was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Seventh Circuit disagreed and not only found that summary judgment should not be granted in favor of St. Paul (such that the matter should be remanded for trial), but in reversing the district court ruling it directed that summary judgment should be entered in favor of Acme.
Yet, the question arises whether St. Paul is inoculated against a bad-faith claim on the ground that even though its coverage determination was wrong it was at least a reasonable one – given that the district court judge agreed with it and entered summary judgment in its favor. Putting the question more broadly, if an insurer wins a summary judgment ruling on coverage does it simultaneously show that there are no circumstances that would support the policyholder’s bad-faith claim (with respect to the coverage decision itself).
In general, insurers face first-party bad-faith liability only if they deny a claim unreasonably and without proper cause. Here, St. Paul may argue that the district court’s decision in its favor perforce shows that its decision was reasonable. Accordingly, so the argument would go, it cannot be held liable for bad faith.
The California Court of Appeal has addressed the question whether a trial-court victory by an insurer insulates its from bad-faith liability on the ground that the decision alone demonstrates that there was a genuine issue as to coverage (and thus the insurer’s denial of coverage even if erroneously was reasonable). In Filippo Industries, Inc. v. Sun Ins. Co., 74 Cal.App.4th 1429 (Cal. App. 1999), the insurer argued that the trial-court ruling in its favor – though reversed on appeal – established that its interpretation had a sufficient basis as to evidence a genuine-issue as to whether coverage applied. In effect, the carrier argued that a trial court ruling in its favor alone precludes bad faith as a matter of law.
The California appellate court rejected this proposition, reasoning:
“We certainly have great faith in the sagacity and reasonableness of trial judges but we decline to impute infallibility to any court, trial or appellate. . . . . Mistakes happen, but . . . that mistake should [not] automatically result in depriving an insured of [its bad-faith claim].”
Insurers are required to construe uncertain policy language or unclear facts in favor of coverage; consequently, they may not rely on ambiguous policy language to argue there is a legitimate dispute and thus no bad faith. Employees Benefit Ass’n v. Grissett, 732 So.2d 968, 976 (Ala. 1998) (“[I]n a ‘normal’ case, the insurer cannot use ambiguity in the contracts as a basis for claiming a debatable reason not to pay the claim.”); Mixson, Inc. v. Am. Loyalty Ins. Co., 562 S.E.2d 659 (S.C. App. 2002) (Although no legal precedent on point, common meaning of disputed term indicated that insurer’s contrary construction was unreasonable.); Lucas v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 963 P.2d 357 (Idaho 1998) (uncertain or disputed factual record insufficient to preclude bad faith claim).
A trial court’s erroneous ruling on the question of coverage is not sufficient to show that the insurer’s original coverage denial was reasonable at the time it was made. See generally Sobley v. S. Natural Gas Co., 210 F.3d 561 (5th Cir. 2000). Indeed, at trial of the bad-faith claim, the court should preclude the insurer even from offering into evidence the erroneous trial court ruling for a number of reasons, including: (i) because the court’s decision post-dates the coverage determination the decision itself is irrelevant as a matter of law; (ii) an erroneous ruling by a trial court does not establish the reasonableness of the carrier’s initial erroneous coverage determination; and (iii) it would be prejudicial to admit the ruling into evidence because it threatens to displace the role of the jury or risks the jurors overweighting the overruled decision.