Insureds, Prior Knowledge and Insurance Coverage

One of the more ambiguous and gray areas in insurance coverage law is the question of when an insured is or should be aware that a claim is on its way. The law recognizes that this can certainly occur at some point before the insured actually is handed suit papers by a process server, but the law is certainly not crystal clear as to when that is. This is a question of particular importance for insureds because various contractual policy terms in a policy and various common law principles read into the insurance relationship can all preclude coverage if that date is deemed to be before the effective date of the insurance in force when the insured actually is served with the suit papers. For instance, many policies contain terms precluding coverage if the insured knew or should have known of the potential claim before a policy took effect and, for that matter as well, failure to disclose an expected claim in applying for a policy can result in the policy being voided for misrepresentation in many jurisdictions.

Of interest on this topic is this article here at Law.com concerning whether attorneys, covered under professional liability policies, are on notice in this manner whenever an unhappy client complains about a case or, if not whenever the client complains, how much complaining is necessary for the insured to be aware that a claim is likely and to lose coverage as a result if and when that client does file suit. A new declaratory judgment action filed in New Jersey seeks to answer that particular question. Of particular interest to me, however, is the fact context in which the complaining arose. It concerned a client unhappy with the terms of a settlement negotiated by the insured attorney. It’s a cliche of mediation, uttered by every mediator trying to push two unhappy parties to reach agreement on a resolution, that “a good settlement is one where both sides are unhappy.” Well, if that’s the case, then does the complaining after the fact mean that the lawyers involved are always thereafter on notice of a potential claim that they have to report to their malpractice insurers? It would be kind of silly to have a legal rule holding that the usual griping that often accompanies settlement has to be reported to the lawyers’ insurers to protect their rights to coverage in those one out of a million times that the complaining eventually morphs into a malpractice suit. Admittedly, this is something of a deliberately far fetched example, but it does point out the practical considerations that have to be factored into the question of how far in advance of the filing of suit the insured’s obligations can attach. Too far in advance, and the legal rule creates an unworkable, burdensome scenario for all involved, including insurers who would have to process multiple and unnecessary notices concerning many events that will never lead to suit; not far enough in advance and insurers lose the protections those policy terms and common law doctrines were intended to provide.