Then and Now: Proving a Duty to Defend By Using Evidence Outside of a Complaint
You know, this is actually of more personal interest to me than it is probably of importance to insureds, insurers and their lawyers with regard to determining whether a duty to defend exists in a given case. That is because the rule reflected in the case I am about to tell you about is sensible, intuitive, and consistent with the direction that the case law has been trending for a number of years, and thus should be of no surprise to anyone working in the area of insurance coverage law. As this neat article, with its neat four paragraph synopsis of the case’s key holding, explains, the United States District Court here in Boston has issued a ruling holding that, where the facts between those alleged in the complaint against the insured and those offered to the insurer by the insured differ, the insurer must investigate those competing versions of events before deciding whether to deny a defense to the insured on the ground that the complaint only alleges an excluded claim. There is a practice tip in there, which is that, when representing an insured served with a complaint whose allegations are both inaccurate and uncovered, counsel for the insured should provide the insurer with evidence showing a different factual scenario, one which could be covered and which would at least trigger a duty to defend. There is nothing new in this, and the law in Massachusetts has provided this opening to creative coverage counsel for insureds for decades, going back at least as far as the question of insurance coverage for a dispute between Vanessa Redgrave and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s. That said, though, I would suggest that for many years, lawyers for insureds did not come close to taking full advantage of that opportunity and tactic. This District Court case, Manganella v. Evanston Insurance, makes clear both that they should, and that the better lawyers now have begun fully exploiting that avenue for obtaining coverage.
I say this is of personal interest because, many years ago, I represented a party in a major coverage case involving whether particular allegations of sexual misconduct of an uncovered type alleged in a complaint, which were in turn denied by the insured, could be covered and require a defense. Courts at that time focused solely or at least heavily on the alleged misconduct in making that decision, and, as a general rule, would not have considered the insured’s argument or evidence that the truth was different than that alleged in the complaint in deciding the question. Manganella makes clear the extent to which the law has evolved since that time, as it reflects a belief that the actual facts, if different than that alleged in the complaint, should be considered by the insurer and then by the court in determining whether there is a duty to defend in that type of a situation.
Depends on What You Mean By "Related"
Well, here’s a story on an unpublished Ninth Circuit decision on the impact on the duty to defend of related claims provisions in claims made insurance policies. Although policies vary in the language and structure they use to accomplish it, these provisions essentially declare a claim made during a policy period to be linked to earlier events or an earlier claim if they all arise from related events, with there being no coverage if the earlier related events occurred before the policy period of the policy under which coverage is being sought. The operation of these provisions is of crucial importance for the operation of claims made insurance policies and for insurance programs built on them, in that a claims made policy is built around the idea that the policy will only provide coverage for claims - such as lawsuits - actually first made against the insured during the effective period of that policy, and that the policy won’t provide any coverage if the loss for which coverage is sought relates to a claim that began before the commencement of that policy period. Claims made policies are priced on only covering claims actually first arising during the policy period - and not on covering those that started before the policy period or were not made until after it ended. By precluding coverage when a particular claim actually stems from events or another claim that predated the policy, the related acts language is the mechanism for effectuating this intent. I will warn you up-front that this is a very simplistic introduction to a fairly complicated subject, but it captures the idea.
The article discusses an example of a court refusing to apply such language in that way, by instead finding events that predated the policy to not be related to the claim made during the policy period and for which coverage is sought. The article, however, overstates the case by making it sound as though there is some sort of blanket prohibition against this approach to limiting coverage under claims made insurance policies, and that courts simply won’t find a claim during a policy period to not be covered when it is related to events that occurred before the policy period. That is, however, overstating the case. This issue is inevitably highly fact specific, and courts look closely at the factual interrelationship of the events at issue to decide this, rather than simply rejecting outright the assertion of such a linkage or denying the legitimacy of policy terms voiding coverage in the presence of such a linkage. While it is fair to say that, to some extent, such linkage is in the eye of the beholder and thus the denial of coverage on this ground is never simply an easy, mechanistic activity, it is simultaneously unfair to present it - as the article at least intimates - as a policy defense that is not accepted by the courts or ever applicable.
A Good Reason to Read Your Insurance Policy
Wow. This is a fascinating insurance coverage story - I know, people who don’t practice in that area will email me in droves to tell me there is no such thing, but still - that illustrates some important points. It is the story of the corporate officer of a juvenile facility that was involved, apparently without his knowledge, in bribing a judge to feed kids to the facility, and who has now been found to have no coverage, including of his defense costs, for the claims against him that resulted. There are two teaching moments in this story. The first is an insurance law point: despite his lack of involvement in the events at issue, he lost coverage because the policy contained exclusions that barred coverage for claims arising from the criminal acts of any insured, and it is well established that exclusions that apply when “any insured” commits the excluded act preclude coverage for all insureds, even those who played no role in the acts that triggered the exclusion. In contrast, policies often include exclusionary language that is much narrower and prevents exclusions from applying to insureds who were not actually involved in the excluded conduct, such as language stating that the exclusion only applies to “an insured” or “the insured” who commits the excluded act (rather than to “any insured”) or language stating that the exclusion does not apply to an insured who did not “in fact” participate in the conduct that triggered the exclusion. The insured in the story has learned the hard way that an exclusion that applies when “any insured” commits an excluded act deprives uninvolved insureds of coverage as well.
This leads to the second teaching moment provided by the story, and which echoes something I have often said in posts: insurance coverage cannot just be purchased and ignored until the time, if ever, a claim arises. It is important in advance to understand the scope of what is being purchased and what is excluded. The “any insured” problem posed in this case could have been avoided had the insured and its broker sought out a policy that uses narrower exclusionary language to avoid the exclusions applying to innocent insureds. I suspect without knowing that for a few dollars more, the company could have found a policy along those lines. It’s a day late and a dollar short to figure this out after the fact.
Interesting Developments in the Insurance Coverage World
I thought I would pass on two interesting insurance coverage stories, with some thoughts on each. The first is this one here, about the New Jersey Supreme Court finding that an insurer that loses an insurance coverage action can be ordered to pay attorney’s fees incurred by the insured in a separate but related coverage action in another jurisdiction. A prevailing insured’s right to recover fees incurred in an insurance coverage dispute with its insurer is a slow moving but inexorable carve out from the American Rule, which holds that parties are responsible for their own attorney’s fees, and somewhere down the road we are likely to find it has become the overwhelming majority rule in this country. The expansive reading of that obligation imposed in this New Jersey decision is reflective of that trend.
The second is this one, about a finding that an insurer had no duty to defend its insured against a class action seeking only economic losses based on the risk of bodily injury, rather than seeking recovery for bodily injury itself actually suffered by the class plaintiffs. The court found that the insurer had no duty to defend because coverage was limited to claims for bodily injury, and the action did not actually seek to recover for identifiable physical injury. This case caught my eye because it reflects a narrow, highly technical reading of the policy language and of the coverage it granted, pursuant to which the court refused to expand the coverage to include a defense obligation simply because the case pled against the insured had some relationship to possible allegations of bodily injury; the duty to defend is often interpreted by courts to be so broad that often courts, and sometimes even insurers, view the duty as triggered if the claim even comes close to fitting the terms of coverage. You can call this kind of a horseshoes approach to determining the duty to defend, as in close is good enough to do it. The court here did not buy it, and in that it is a moral victory for those of us who understand insurance policies as contracts whose terms should be honored and applied as written.
Other People's Money, Cumis Counsel and the Tripartite Relationship
We have talked before on this blog about the tripartite relationship among insurers, the defense counsel they appoint, and the insured; this is a topic of wide interest to all sides in the insurer/insured relationship, and, in fact, my handy dandy two minute guide to the relationship’s issues is among my most read pages. However, there is a twist in the normal relationship reflected in that guide when, rather than the typical situation where the insurer is appointing defense counsel to represent the insured, the insured is a fortune 100 or so company with its own preferred counsel and wants the insurer to simply pay for that counsel, and not to appoint its own selected counsel to defend the insured against a covered lawsuit. In that scenario, the relationship becomes a little off balance, and not really the sort of equal, three sided triangle that one usually envisions when referring to the tripartite relationship. In that scenario, rather, the defense counsel is much more the handmaiden of its usual client, the insured, than it is controlled by or answerable to the insurer, and the insurer is placed in the awkward position of being expected to primarily simply pay the bills for the insured’s defense. You often run into the old “other people’s money” problem when that happens, where the insured and the defense counsel have no real economic incentive to control costs, because the costs of the case are being paid by a third party, the insurer, to whom neither is really answerable; after all, the insured is still going to continue to use its favored outside counsel in the future, regardless of whether the insurer, who paid the bills in that case, was or was not happy about the defense lawyers’ billing practices, effectiveness or cost efficiency in that case. Various states, to varying degrees, have rules - whether statutory or judge made - in place that try to control for that dynamic, most famously California, which by statute obligates the insurer to only pay counsel in that situation the same rates it normally pays to counsel the insurer itself retains to defend cases of that type. What happens when the insured and its outside counsel don’t want to live by those rates, however, is the subject of this story right here.
Randy Maniloff's Top Ten Insurance Coverage Decisions for Dummies and the Rest of Us
Some bloggers blog their way to greatness, other bloggers have greatness thrust upon them. For some reason, that line popped into my head when Randy Maniloff’s always entertaining article on the top ten insurance coverage decisions of the past year appeared, like manna from heaven, in my in-box yesterday, providing one weary blogger - i.e., me - with a gift wrapped post for this morning. Substantively, there is much to be gleaned from the article and the cases it reviews, on issues ranging from the current state of trigger of coverage problems to an excellent decision on handling duty to defend disputes concerning obviously intentional conduct that has been pled as negligence for purposes of triggering insurance coverage, all written with the author’s trademark good humor and style (something anyone who reads a lot of insurance coverage briefs, opinions, articles and - yes - blogs can attest is not always present in written work in this area of the law). Moreover, the author has tossed in a free extra, a truly comical special section titled “Coverage for Dummies: The Top Ten," which collects ten excellent examples of people doing really dumb things and then demanding that their insurers protect them against the outcome.
And best of all, in what can only have been a transparent attempt by the author to garner a review on this blog, one of his top ten decisions (non-dummy division) is an ERISA case, the Supreme Court’s decision in MetLife v. Glenn. More seriously, its inclusion is almost mandatory in any collection of the most important decisions affecting the insurance industry (which, obviously, underwrites and administers the vast majority of employer provided disability plans), as it is guaranteed to generate more subsequent court rulings than any other insurance related decision of the past year, as the courts of each circuit move, over time, to realign their jurisprudence to accord with Glenn.
On the Impact of Reservation of Rights Letters
Permalink | I have written before on a number of occasions about the tripartite relationship that comes into play when an insurer retains defense counsel to represent an insured against a covered lawsuit. In particular, I have discussed my views that the relationship is nowhere near as complicated as many people make it out to be, and that the proper scope of the dealings among all the players in that three sided transaction can be summed up in three handy rules of thumb, which, conveniently enough, you can find right here.
However, what is more complicated and what many people seem to have less understanding of is what are the insured’s rights when the insurer - whether it or instead the insured has selected and is paying the defense lawyers - is limiting its coverage by means of a reservation of rights, which is in essence a letter stating that the insurer will cover only parts, but not all, of any possible loss in a particular case. In many jurisdictions, these circumstance gives rise to a number of substantive powers and subtle leverages on the part of the insured, and likewise to many express duties and subtle pressure points on the part of the insurer. Those, much more than the much simpler dynamics of the tripartite relationship, are worth knowing about, and if you think so too, you may want to attend this teleconference on the subject, scheduled for tomorrow.
What Happens When ERISA and the Law of Insurance Coverage Collide?
Permalink | Wow, I guess this is really Seventh Circuit week here, with, I guess, a particular focus on the jurisprudence of Judge Easterbrook, whose opinion in Baxter I discussed in my last post. This time, I turn to his decision from Wednesday in Federal Insurance Co. v. Arthur Andersen, which strikes right at the intersection of the two subject areas in the title of this blog, insurance and ERISA. The Arthur Andersen opinion concerns the extent of coverage, if any, for Arthur Andersen’s massive settlement of lawsuits related to its retirement liabilities upon its well publicized, post-Enron collapse, under a policy covering breaches of fiduciary duty. The court found that there was no coverage, for a number of reasons, the most salient of which being that, first, the losses in question were the actual pension amounts, which the policy does not cover (it instead covers only other losses related to a pension plan, separate from the actual amount of the pension benefits in question), and second, that although the claims in question related to pension plans, they were not actually for breaches of fiduciary duty related to such plans, which is all that the policy actually responds to. There are some interesting lessons for plan sponsors and plan administrators in these findings: first, that it is important to remember that, in buying fiduciary liability coverage, this is not the same thing as insuring the benefits owed to pensioners themselves, and, second, that the exact scope of the coverage is narrow and limited by its exact terms, which may not extend coverage to the specific allegations of any particular lawsuit arising from the pension plan. What’s the take away? A close look by an expert is needed when selecting insurance coverage for pension plans and the people who run them, if for no other reason than to have an accurate understanding of the extent to which potential problems with the plans may actually be covered.
Beyond these lessons in the case for people on the ERISA side of this blog’s title, the decision provides a fascinating run through a number of complicated insurance coverage topics for those of you who are interested in the insurance coverage half of this blog’s title. The judge - or perhaps his clerk, I don’t know the practices in that particular court - writes fluidly on the law of estoppel, waiver, the duty to defend, and the respective rights of the insurer and the insured when it comes to control of the defense and settlement of a covered lawsuit.
Want to Learn More About the Tripartite Relationship?
Permalink | One of the widest read and linked to posts I have written recently was this one here providing the law of the so-called tripartite relationship in thumb nail fashion. Interest in this topic surprises me to a certain extent, because very much the point of the post was that, despite all the seminars and publications addressing the topic, I really think the rules governing the relationship among insureds, insurers and insurer appointed defense counsel boil down to a pretty simple set of working principles, which I discussed in that blog post.
However, it is clear that many people have a great deal of questions about the topic and want more education on the subject, and I can think of no better sources to answer such questions and provide education on it than the panelists on this upcoming seminar on the topic; among the panelists is Marc Mayerson, who writes the Insurance Scrawl blog on insurance coverage topics.
Insurance Coverage, Tuberculosis, and that Guy on the Plane
Permalink | You see, everything at the end of the day is about insurance. Risk sharing that allows smaller businesses to move forward with operations, plaintiffs’ decisions over who has enough insurance to warrant suing, even the economic dislocations of climate change - everything comes back to the insurance industry. Here’s a great example, and an amusing one. Remember the lawyer who flew across the Atlantic after being diagnosed with tuberculosis? And who naturally was thereafter sued by other passengers who became quite worried about what they might have picked up from the guy? (Your faithful correspondent here moves three rows away on a commuter train if someone even sniffles, so I certainly have sympathies for those other passengers.) Well, he notified his homeowner’s insurer of those cases and the insurer is paying to defend him, but it has now launched the real battle, namely litigation over whether or not there is coverage for these claims against him; if there isn’t, he’s stuck paying any judgments or settlements. You can find the whole story here. A couple of interesting side points. First, there is no doubt the insurer is, as the article suggests, taking the right tack here; the proper approach is to defend and simultaneously ask a court to declare whether there is any coverage. This is particularly so in this instance because of the second side point, which is that, on first glance, those coverage defenses of the homeowner’s insurer noted in the article aren’t the best; without even knowing the facts beyond what I’ve read in the media in the past or reading the complaint, I can spot the potential holes in their arguments from here. When coverage is particularly debatable, it makes no sense for an insurer to simply deny coverage and leave the insured on its own, because of the potential exposures - a long story, best saved for another day - that can attach to the insurer if it is wrong in deciding that there is no coverage; rather, the best tactical play in that situation is to defend the insured, and to not deny coverage unless and until a court agrees there is no coverage. The downsides to the insurer in that situation are nothing more than the costs of litigating the coverage question and possibly, depending on the jurisdiction, having to pay the insured’s costs in the coverage litigation if the court decides there is coverage; that’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the potential liabilities, including bad faith judgments, that can attach to an insurer that simply denies coverage on its own, and is later found to have been wrong.
The Three Rules of the Tripartite Relationship
Permalink | We’ve been a little ERISA heavy here for awhile now, somewhat to the detriment of the insurance litigation half of the blog’s title, simply because of the range of interesting events that have taken place under the ERISA rubric lately. While all that was going on, though, a particularly good collection of articles on different insurance coverage topics have crossed my (electronic) desktop, and I want to pass them along as well; I will try to scatter them in with other posts over the next week or so, until I exhaust them.
One I wanted to pass along is this article here, by two prominent policyholder attorneys, on the tripartite relationship, which concerns the potentially conflicting loyalties of defense counsel appointed by an insurer to defend an insured against a lawsuit that may or may not be covered. This problem stems from the fact that insurers are often obligated to provide insureds with a defense against cases that may turn out, upon further development of the facts of the case, to not actually be covered, in which event the insurer will not have to cover any judgment or settlement, and might even be entitled to recoup from the insured the amount paid to defend the case in certain circumstances and jurisdictions.
Although there is much written and said about the tripartite relationship, the whole topic comes close to falling into the much sound and fury signifying nothing realm, although not completely because there is some substance to the issue, only not as much as lawyers like to make it out to be. The whole issue can really be boiled down to three handy rules of thumb. First, the defense counsel appointed by the insurer must focus only on defending the case as though the insured were his or her only client, and cannot muddle about between the insurer and the insured over any coverage issues that remain outstanding. Second, the insurer needs to retain separate lawyers, in the role of so-called coverage counsel, to take the factual information developed by defense counsel in defending the case and evaluate how it affects coverage. And third, an insured must remember that the defense counsel is solely going to defend the case, without regard to coverage disputes and is not looking out for the insured’s interests with regard to whether any recovery in the case will actually be covered; the insured has to instead hire independent coverage counsel of its own to take steps to parlay the evidence developed by the defense counsel into a commitment of coverage by the insurer.
We Take Requests: More on Excess Insurance
Permalink | A loyal blog reader wrote in recently noting a glaring omission of this blog, notably the absence of a subcategory heading over on the left hand side of the blog collecting case law and comments on excess insurance issues. I have added the menu option over there, so readers can find excess cases easily. And to get the ball rolling, I have relocated one of my favorite insurance related blog posts from the past few months, discussing the obligations - or lack thereof- of excess carriers to follow the settlement decisions of underlying primary carriers, over to that new category heading. You can find it there now.
But as a grand opening special, I also thought I would note today this decision out of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island discussing a range of issues involving both primary and excess coverage for that golden oldie of insurance coverage law, environmental clean up. The issue that was most interesting to me in the opinion, as it has the most transferability to other types of cases, has to do with when an excess carrier’s defense obligations kick in. The case presented the old chestnut of when an excess carrier, whose policy technically does not attach - or come into play - on a loss until the policies underneath it have been exhausted, begins to have a defense obligation with regard to the claim at issue. The court acknowledged the general rule, relied upon by the excess insurer to try to avoid a defense obligation, that the excess carrier cannot have an obligation to contribute to the defense until the loss exceeds the primary coverage. However, the court manipulated that principle to tack a current defense obligation onto the excess carrier even though the primary policy underneath it had not yet been exhausted by finding that the excess carrier’s defense obligation was triggered without regard to whether or not the underlying primary policy had already paid out its full policy in defense costs, so long as the insured’s incurred defense costs already exceeded the amount of the primary policy. Its an interesting result to me, because the biggest issue, in my book, when it comes to excess policies is the tricky interchange of how and when obligations move out of the primary policy and onto the excess carrier. This case is a neat example of that.
The case is Emhart v. Home Insurance, and you can find it here.
Massachusetts Insurance Coverage Law in a Nutshell
Permalink | I wanted to pass on to you a case out of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio that was issued about the time I was trying a patent infringement case last month, and which I wasn’t able to comment on then as a result. With a little more time now, however, I wanted to go back to it and mention it here, because, despite being out of Ohio, it applies Massachusetts law on the duty to defend under insurance policies and on the rules for interpreting insurance policies. The court provides a terrific, and easily quoted, summation of the rules in this state on those issues:
Under Massachusetts law, as in most jurisdictions, "the question of the initial duty of a liability insurer to defend third-party actions against the insured is decided by matching the third-party complaint with the policy provisions . . ." Sterilite Corp. v. Continental Cas. Co., 17 Mass. App. Ct. 316, 318, 458 N.E.2d 338 (1984). The duty to defend arises if, in comparing the policy terms with the third-party complaint, "the allegations of the complaint are 'reasonably susceptible' of an interpretation that they state or adumbrate a claim covered by the policy terms . . . Otherwise stated, the process is one of envisaging what kinds of losses may be proved as lying within the range of the allegations of the complaint, and then seeing whether any such loss fits the expectation of protective insurance reasonably generated by the terms of the policy." Id. (quoting Vappi & Co., Inc. v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 348 Mass. 427, 431, 204 N.E.2d 273 (1965)) (citations omitted); see also Simplex Techs., Inc. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 429 Mass. 196, 197-98, 706 N.E.2d 1135 (1999) (quoting same). The insured bears the initial burden of proving that a claim falls within the grant of coverage. See Camp Dresser & McKee, Inc. v. Home Ins. Co., 30 Mass. App. Ct. 318, 321, 568 N.E.2d 631 (1991).
"It is well settled in [Massachusetts] that a liability insurer owes a broad duty to defend its insured against any claims that create a potential for liability." Simplex, 429 Mass. at 199 (quoting Doe v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 423 Mass. 366, 368, 667 N.E.2d 1149 (1996)) (emphasis supplied by Simplex court). The cause of action stated in the complaint need only give rise to a possibility of recovery, "there need not be a probability of recovery." Id. (citation omitted) (emphasis added). Indeed, a duty to defend may arise "even if the claim is baseless." Mt. Airy Ins. Co. v. Greenbaum, 127 F.3d 15, 19 (1st Cir. 1997) (applying Massachusetts law); see also Sterilite, 17 Mass. App. Ct. at 324 ("the insurer stands in breach of its duty even if the third party fails in the end to support any such claim of liability by adequate proof."). In addition, "[t]hat some, or even many, of the underlying claims may fall outside the coverage does not excuse [the insurer] from its duty to defend the actions." Simplex, 429 Mass. at 199 (quoting Camp Dresser & McKee, Inc. v. Home Ins. Co., 30 Mass. App. Ct. 318, 322, 568 N.E.2d 631 (1991)).
Massachusetts courts have explained that, "when construing the language of an insurance policy, it is appropriate 'to consider [whether] an objectively reasonable insured, reading the relevant policy language, would expect to be covered." Nashua Corp. v. First State Ins. Co., 420 Mass. 196, 200, 648 N.E.2d 1272 (1995) (quoting Hazen Paper Co. v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co., 407 Mass. 689, 700, 555 N.E.2d 576 (1990). Further, "an insured is entitled to the most favorable interpretation of the policy language when there is more than one rational interpretation of the policy language, or where the policy language is ambiguous." Id.; see also Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 406 Mass. 7, 12, 545 N.E.2d 1156 (1989) ("Where the language permits more than one rational interpretation, that most favorable to the insured is to be taken.").
The case is Royal Insurance Company v. Boston Beer Company, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25513 (D. Ohio 2007). The decision comes out of a court that, unfortunately, does not make all of its opinions available for free on line, something that all courts frankly should do, and so I cannot provide a link to the opinion.
Ten Exciting Moments in Insurance Coverage Law, 2006
Permalink | Here is an article insurance coverage litigator Randy Maniloff is publishing in Mealey’s early next month discussing Randy’s picks for the ten most important insurance coverage decisions from across the country over the past year. The cases cover issues ranging from the absolute pollution exclusion to junk faxes, and a range of topics in-between.
While the article is useful as a primer for staying up to date on what has occurred in the insurance coverage field over the last twelve months, what I think I like the best about it is it demonstrates the breadth of issues at play in this field. Most people - including many lawyers - look at an insurance policy and see a seemingly impenetrable document; in addition, many lawyers who don’t work in this field don’t realize how diverse an area of practice it really is. Insurance coverage lawyers, however, look at insurance policies and see the untold number of issues that lurk within them, and know the range of legal and factual issues that practicing in this field can present to the practitioner. The breadth of Randy’s article really drives home that point.
Attorney's Fee Awards, and the Duty to Indemnify
Permalink | I have written before about the American Rule - which requires parties to a lawsuit, in the absence of a fee shifting statute or contractual agreement, to pay their own legal fees - and the exception under Massachusetts law that runs in favor of insureds who prevail in coverage cases against their insurers. The Supreme Judicial Court has now established that this exception runs only to disputes over an insurer’s duty to defend, and not to disputes over the duty to indemnify. Thus, while an insured who proves that its insurer breached a duty to defend can recover from the insurer its legal fees in proving this point, the same is not true for an insured who proves that its insurer breached the duty to indemnify. Here’s the story, with a link to the case.
This resolves an unsettled point of Massachusetts law, as to whether the right to recover attorneys fees runs along with a claim over the duty to indemnify, or instead only along with a claim for breach of the duty to defend. It turns out to be the latter only.
In the long run, it’s a better decision than the opposite holding would have been. A decision to deny indemnity without a reasonable basis for doing so is already punishable in Massachusetts under the state’s consumer protection act. When, in contrast, a denial of indemnity is reasonable, an insurer should be able to try to prove that its coverage determination was correct without having to factor in the risk of having to pay the insured’s legal fees if a court finds that the insurer’s interpretation of its coverage obligations, while reasonable, was wrong.
A Fine Piece of Insurance Policy Analysis
I turn today from my recent obsession with ERISA preemption and the Wal-Mart case to other arguably unhealthy obsessions, including insurance coverage decisions, contract interpretation and the fine art of drawing a good judge. On Monday, the Massachusetts Appeals Court issued its opinion in American Commercial Finance Corp. v. Seneca Insurance Co.,in which the issue before the court was whether a fire insurance policy covered costs incurred after a fire to protect the premises against any possible subsequent damage (including another fire). As per the court's opinion, the policy did not contain any express language stating whether or not the policy covered such costs, and any experienced coverage lawyer will tell you that when a court starts off noting that fact or something similar, it is a pretty good bet that the ultimate finding will be that the loss was covered under the policy. Now the absence of policy language expressly precluding coverage of a certain event - of an exclusion actually stating that the policy does not cover a particular event or loss - should not lead inexorably to the conclusion that the event is therefore covered. Reasoning of this nature goes against the general proposition that an insurer cannot and should not be expected to anticipate every possible turn of events and account for them with express limitations on coverage written directly into the policy; if insurers were prophetic enough to be able to do so, as some courts and commentators have pointed out, you would end up with insurance policies that run into the hundreds of pages. That unremarkable idea, however, as anyone who has defended an insurance company against a claim that is not expressly excluded under a policy will tell you, is most often honored only in the breach.
But the Appeals Court judge here did not proceed in such a manner. Instead, as is more proper and far more defensible intellectually, he analyzed the actual language used in the policy related to the insured's obligation after a fire to use reasonable steps to protect the property from further damage, and concluded that it logically implied an obligation on the part of the insurer to pay for the costs of doing so. Although anytime you argue over words in a contract - any contract, not just an insurance policy - there is room to differ as to what the final conclusion should be as to how to interpret it, the judge's reasoning in this case is logical and hard to fault. As such, it is what many insurance coverage decisions are not: useful to future parties trying to guide their contracting and their conduct, understandable and defensible.
And this leads to the point about drawing a good judge. The opinion was authored by Judge Doerfer, who for several years before being appointed to the Appeals Court, served as a Superior Court judge, the Superior Court being Massachusetts' primary and highest level trial department. I can remember litigating complex coverage cases in state court back then, and being pleased to draw Judge Doerfer, who was known to have the intellectual curiosity and scholarly disposition needed to handle such cases. This is in contrast to a case - a true story - in which I appeared in a trial court (I won't identify it so as to protect both the guilty and the innocent) in a coverage case in which the insured and the insurer filed cross motions for summary judgment on the duty to defend. In that case, as in most cases, the determination of whether there was a duty to defend depended simply on a comparison of the policy to the complaint, with a duty to defend existing if the complaint described a claim that potentially might be covered. There generally either is or is not a duty to defend in that circumstance; it has to be one or the other, and all you have to do to decide is make that comparison, barring peculiarities of a nature absent from that case. Now, since one motion said there is a duty to defend and the other said there isn't, one of the parties had to be right given this standard, yet somehow this judge found both parties to be wrong, denying both parties' motions for summary judgment. It ended up being fixed on appeal, but it just goes to show that drawing the right judge right off the bat makes a world of difference, both in the outcome of the case and in the amount of litigation it will require to get to the right outcome.