Liability Seen Through a Looking Glass, or Determining Insurance Coverage After the Fact

I have written before and no doubt will again that one of the most interesting aspects of insurance coverage law is that all the flotsam and jetsam of American economic life eventually washes up on its shores; by this, I mean that whatever issues of liability are working their way through the court system will eventually show up again, sometimes in Alice in Wonderland looking glass fashion, in court as an insurance coverage dispute over whether there is coverage for that particular type of liability.

It happened again here, in this case involving whether insurers have to cover Bear Stearns’ consent decree and disgorgement related to securities trades, with the court, as explained in this article here, finding that there was no coverage. Two points jumped out at me about the story, which I thought I would mention, the first substantive and the second of more academic interest. Substantively, what is of interest is the court’s firm ruling against insurance coverage of the disgorgement of ill-gotten gains. This is a common issue under many types of insurance policies and under different provisions of the policies, from the insuring agreement to definitions of covered damages to exclusions, and the court comes down firmly and cleanly on the side that disgorgement is not covered, basing the finding in part on the public policy impact of allowing coverage of such a loss. Of less substantive interest is the fact that this is one of those coverage cases where, as noted above, the past repeats itself, only in a through the looking glass kind of way. I say this because the coverage case turned on the court and the parties going back to issues that the insured must have thought were resolved by its consent decree in the original action, in which it specifically avoided any finding of knowing misconduct, and litigating them anew, with different and more comprehensive findings, to decide coverage. The coverage litigation, in many ways, required litigating an issue that the insured was able to avoid having decided in the underlying case in which liability was imposed on it, and which the insured probably hoped or perhaps even thought was closed after the original case ended, only to have the issue examined yet again, in a new light, in the coverage case.