Commercial general liability policies provide coverage for the insured’s liability for “damages” on account of bodily injury and property damage and require the insurer to provide a defense to “suits” seeking such damages. Since the beginning of the environmental liability coverage wars some twenty-five years ago, insurers have disputed whether their insureds’ environmental liabilities seek to impose “damages”, are on account of “property damage,” and are adjudicated in the context of “suit[s].” Recent cases have continued to address these recurring issues.
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?
The duty to defend undertaken by an insurance company is an essential component of the “peace of mind” coverage provided by liability insurance protection. Given the breadth with which the duty to defend is ordinarily construed by the courts, the defense-cost coverage of a policy is also referred to as “litigation insurance,” that is, insurance against the risk and burden of suits brought against the insured. Disputes have raged over whether that litigation insurance applies, however, to suits against the insured alleging an – or only – intentional tort.
An insurance company that receives a claim from one of its policyholders inevitably wears both a white hat and a black one. The insurer is there to help its insured deal with the claim – it may dispatch claims handlers or service providers to help the policyholder in its time of need; the insurer, however, also is the insured’s adversary in the sense that it must determine whether it has any obligation to pay the insured. To the latter extent, the insured and the insurer have directly adverse interests. (The law of first-party insurance bad faith is predicated on the recognition in part of this fundamental adversity of interests between the insurer and its insured, especially at the precise moment when the insured is calling upon the insurer for performance.)
The insurer’s wearing two hats poses the opportunity for mischief when those roles get confused or blurred. Take the example of a defense lawyer hired by an insurance company to defend the insured: the defense attorney plainly has an attorney-client relationship with the insured, the touchstone of which is confidentiality. Assume that the defense lawyer is told a fact by the insured that supports the insurer’s denying coverage: the insured confesses to being drunk while driving, the insured acknowledges that it knew of a latent problem before it purchased the policy, or the insured knew of the potential claim against it for a long time but had simply hoped it would go away and so did not notify the insurer sooner. The insurance company might wish to learn of this fact because it might permit it to terminate its defense obligation and avoid paying anything on the claim. In these circumstances, may the defense counsel tell the insurance company about this admission from the insured?
While insurance-coverage law has developed over the last 20 years into a rarefied specialty practice, lawyers who handle the defense of liability cases cannot punt on considering coverage issues – or they risk malpractice claims by their disgruntled clients. The New York Appellate Division recently confirmed that defense counsel may be exposed for failing to investigate the possibility of coverage – even where defense counsel has been retained by another insurance company for the benefit of the insured defendant.
A liability insurer’s promise to defend its insured is at the core of the protection purchased by policyholders and, in most states, the insurer will be required to defend any suit alleging facts that possibly could result in a judgment against the insured that would be covered by the policy’s duty to indemnify. A duty to defend will be found where the undisputed facts surrounding a claim – typically the language of the policy and the allegations of the complaint – permit proof of a claim potentially covered by the duty to indemnify. The complaint-allegations test, or what some jurisdictions term the eight-corners rule, results in the duty to defend being found by courts easily, commensurate with the broad contract language and the policy’s intention to afford the insured “litigation insurance” protecting against the risk and burden of litigation.
In any given liability case, the insured defendant might win, in which event no indemnity would be required, or the insured defendant might lose the case on a ground that is outside the scope of coverage; nothwithstanding the possibility of results where the insurer will not have a duty to indemnify the policyholder, the insurer still has a duty to assume the defense, which matures at the outset of the liability case. Because the duty to defend arises based on the possibility of the duty to indemnify a complaint, rather than based on a prediction of the likely outcome or indeed the actual outcome, we typically say that the duty to defend is broader than is the duty to indemnify.
Although an insurer’s duty to defend will be triggered if the allegations raise the possibility of a duty to indemnify, sometimes
the complaint is unclear whether nestled within the allegations is a potentially covered claim. An interesting take on the issue arose in a recent Eleventh Circuit decision, Hartford Acc. & Indem. Co. v. Beaver (11 Cir. Oct. 16, 2006).
Companies that work with each other share insurance through adding the other company as an “additional insured” in connection with their work together. Sometimes it is not clear that the claim falls within the scope of additional-insured coverage. The New York Appellate Division recently confronted whether an insurer had a duty to defend in those circumstances, answering the question that it does. BP A.C. Corp. v. One Beacon Ins. Group, 2006 NY Slip Op. 05297 (N.Y. App. Div., 1st Dept. July 6, 2006).
Liability-insurance policies were introduced in 1881, yet there is no great certainty in most states as to when the statute of limitations commences for bringing suit on an insurance policy for performance. Somewhat complicating matters – and simplifying it too – is the availability of declaratory relief, a remedy designed in part to pull insurance disputes into court. So to understand the application of statute of limitations in this context, one must draw distinctions among several concepts: (i) anticipatory repudiation of contract, which is considered a present breach of contract; (ii) anticipatory relief of seeking a declaration of rights before breach of contract; (iii) continuing breach of the duty to defend by an insurer; and (iv) breach of the duty to indemnify. The Alaska Supreme Court recently confronted these issues and elected to follow the California Supreme Court’s approach to the questions presented.
The ongoing fights over coverage for junk faxes continue, with the trend favoring policyholders, most recently in the form of a US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit decision, Park University Enterprises, Inc. v. American Cas. Co. (10th Cir. March 27, 2006).
A year ago at this time, policyholders began to feel more confident following an Eighth Circuit opinion that refused to follow negative decisions from the Seventh and Fourth Circuits; since then, the trend has continued to swing toward policyholders, at least insofar as they seek defense coverage to class actions alleging violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. 227.
For more than fifty years, policyholders and their insurers have been struggling over the insurer’s promise to defend and the insurer’s control the defense. Policyholders properly have been concerned that an insurance company that controls the defense of an action potentially covered by the carrier’s duty to indemnify will use that control to avoid that very same indemnity obligation. While in egregious cases where a lawyer hired by the carrier has abused his or her relationship with the insured, the client, so as to favor the lawyer’s source of income – the insurance company – the courts have responded to protect the insured’s interests. But most courts have ruled that such after-the-fact remedies are insufficient: they do not adequately compensate for the injury; meritorious claims are not pursued (in part because insureds may not discover the abuse); and the potential for this abuse alone undermines the dominant purpose of the insurance relationship to afford protection and peace of mind for the insured.