Cleaning Up the Mess in Texas: Insurer Funding Payment of Liability Claims When Coverage Is Doubted

In May 2005, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously held that a liability insurer that voluntarily settles a claim against an insured may recover the payment against its own insured if it proves that the claim is uncovered and it reserved its right to seek recoupment. The Texas Supreme Court, while unanimous in result, was badly splintered in rationale.
Two years ago, the Court granted rehearing. Yesterday, the Court changed course, with a majority ruling that an insurer does not have a unilateral right or an equitable claim to recover a settlement payment. Excess Underwriters v. Frank’s Casing (Tex. Feb. 1, 2008). The court reaffirmed its prior decision in Matagorda County, which barred a primary insurer from seeking recoupment of defense cost. Recent case law in other jurisdictions have split on the issue, but the more robust recent opinions (Illinois, Massachusetts, Wyoming) line up with Texas.

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Fettering the Insurer’s Privilege to Control the Defense It Is Duty Bound to Provide

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.

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Insurance Industry Spared from Bankruptcy: Asbestos 524(g) Settlements

The California Court of Appeal has reversed a ruling holding that liability insurers of an asbestos company had immediate obligations to perform in full once a trust was established through section 524(g) of the bankruptcy code that concurrently extinguished the liability of the policyholder vis a vis the asbestos claimant creditors. Fuller-Austin v. Highlands Ins. (Cal. App. Jan. 19, 2006). The “acceleration” of insurers’ obligations that these 524(g) trusts might create has caused apoplexy in the insurance industry, and the California court’s reversal of the insurance ruling that the creation of the trust meant the insurers had immediate obligations to perform for the total (non-bankruptcy) value of the future claim stream no doubt produced a collective sigh of relief from the insurance industry (and their reinsurers).

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Mess in Texas — Insurer Reimbursement of Settlement Payments

While in May 2005 the Texas Supreme Court had unanimously held — but with splintered rationales — that an insurer may recover from its own insured monies advanced by the insurer to settle an uncovered liability claim, the Texas court rang in the 2006 new year by granting rehearing in the case. The case, Excess Underwriter’s at Lloyd’s, London v. Frank’s Casing Crew & Rental Tools, Inc., (Tex. May 27, 2005), rehearing granted, 2006 Tex. LEXIS 1 (reversed on 1 February 2008), picks up the cudgels on this issue from the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Blue Ridge Ins. Co. v. Jacobsen, 22 P.3d 313 (Cal. 2001) and seemingly abandons the prior decision in Texas Ass’n of Counties County Gov’t Risk Mgmt. Pool v. Matagorda County, 52 S.W.3d 128 (Tex. 2000), which had cast substantial doubt on the viability of an insurer-recoupment claim, at the time seeming to bring Texas in line with Massachusetts on this issue. See Med. Malpractice Joint Underwriting Ass’n of Massachusetts v. Goldberg, 680 N.E.2d 1121 (Mass. 1997). Frank’s Casing also parts company with the recent holding of the Illinois Supreme Court in General Agents Insurance Company Of America, Inc. v. Midwest Sporting Goods Company, 828 N.E.2d 1092 (Ill. March 24, 2005), which had rejected a carrier claim to recoupment of defense costs, though on a basis that would bar recoupment of settlement or indemnity payments, too.
In Frank’s Casing, the insured was involved in a serious case, resulting in a $7.5 million settlement. The insurers had previously offered to pay roughly two-thirds of this amount without a right of recoupment against the insured; the insured rejected this proposal, and the insurers paid the full sum and sought recovery from the insured of the entire amount.

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Equitas Financial Reports – 2005 Version

As part of the Reconstruction and Renewal of Lloyd’s in 1996, several Equitas entities were created to serve as the final reinsurer-to-close and to manage the run-off of underwriter liabilities for non-life 1992 and earlier business.
On June 7, 2005, Equitas issued a press release on its annual results and more recently made available its Report & Accounts for the year ended 31 March 2005.

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Equitas Financial Reports – 2004 Version

As is well known, Equitas Ltd. manages the run off of liabilities under non-life insurance policies issued by underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, prior to 1993, and these policies are exposed to paying for liabilities of US companies for certain asbestos, environmental, and other “health hazard” claims of injury or damage that occurred in the period of their coverage. Each year, Equitas publishes its financial results as of 31 March (for 2004, its Reports and Accounts were released in late June but were dated 3 June 2004) and provides additional commentary via an accompanying press release (dated 8 June 2004).

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