No Settlement Offer, No Bad Faith Liability for Insurer

By Samuel Sorich and Larry Golub

On October 7, 2013, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District held in Reid v. Mercury Insurance Company that an insurer that acknowledged its insured’s liability for a third party’s injuries and recognized that there was a substantial likelihood of a recovery in excess of policy limits had no liability for bad faith failure to settle in the absence of a settlement demand by the claimant or any other manifestation that the claimant was interested in settlement.

The Court of Appeal’s decision in this case provides guidance on the scope of an insurer’s duty to settle. The issue became confused when, in June 2012, the Ninth Circuit ruled in Du v. Allstate Insurance Company that an insurer had a duty to initiate settlement once liability was reasonably clear even though the injured party made no settlement demand. The Ninth Circuit retracted that portion of its  ruling in October 2012. The Du rulings are discussed on this blog here and here.

The Court of Appeal’s decision puts any confusion resulting from Du to rest in stating,

In short, nothing in California law supports the proposition that bad faith liability for failure to settle may attach if an insurer fails to initiate settlement discussions, or offer its policy limits, as soon as an insured’s liability in excess of policy limits has become clear. Nor will this court make such a rule of law, for which neither precedent nor sound policy considerations have been offered.”   

This case involves a Mercury insured who failed to stop at a red light and collided with another car. The driver of the other car was seriously injured. Within a few weeks of the accident, Mercury advised the injured party’s representative that Mercury “was accepting liability and that there may be a ‘limits issue.’”

Mercury requested medical records from the injured party, which were not made available. Mercury and the injured party’s attorney exchanged correspondence on the medical records and other matters, but the injured party never made a settlement demand.

The injured party filed a lawsuit against Mercury’s insured. The lawsuit resulted in a $5.9 million judgment against the insured. The Mercury policy covering the insured had a $100,000 policy limit.

Mercury was sued for bad faith failure to settle. The lawsuit alleged that the insurer’s failure to make a settlement offer exposed the insured to a judgment in excess of policy limits.

Mercury filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff could not establish a bad faith action because the injured party never made a settlement demand. The trial court granted Mercury’s motion. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The Court of Appeal explained that in a case where the insured is exposed to a judgment in excess of policy limits, in order to establish a bad faith action against an insurer for failure to pursue settlement discussions:

there must be, at a minimum, some evidence either that the injured party has communicated to the insurer an interest in settlement, or some other circumstance demonstrating that the insurer knew that settlement within policy limits could feasibly be negotiated.” 

The court concluded that there no evidence in this case that could support a finding Mercury knew or should have known that the injured party was interested in settlement. The court ruled, “Accordingly, defendant cannot be liable for bad faith failure to settle.”

Employers' Ability To Collect Attorney's Fees In Wage Cases Restricted by New Bill

On August 26, 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 462 into law, making it harder for employers to obtain attorney’s fees in certain employment wage claim cases.

Prior to the passage of SB 462, section 218.5 of the California Labor Code required a court in any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare pension fund contributions, to award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party who requests such fees and costs at the outset of the case, regardless of whether the prevailing party was the employer or the employee.

SB 462 changed that, providing instead that an employer cannot obtain attorney’s fees under section 218.5 just by prevailing – it must also establish that the employee brought the court action “in bad faith.” By contrast, an employee can still obtain attorney’s fees and costs where he or she prevails, without having to prove “bad faith.”

The bill is a response to the California Supreme Court’s decision in Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc. which, while denying section 218.5 attorney’s fees in the case before it, affirmed that section 218.5 “awards fees to the prevailing party whether it is the employee or the employer; it is a two-way fee-shifting provision.” Following the Court’s issuance of that opinion, plaintiffs’ attorneys have been seeking to change fee shifting provisions of section 218.5, claiming that a two-way fee-shifting provision has a chilling effect on contractual wage claims.

Opponents of the measure, as reported in the official senate records on the bill, point out that section 218.5 has been in place since 1986, that Kirby merely reaffirmed its clear language, and that the bill will “incentivize further meritless wage and hour litigation.”

What does the law mean for employers? First, it is important to note that while SB 462 raises the bar for employers to obtain attorney’s fees where they prevail in such cases, this law does not apply to minimum wage or overtime claims. Another provision of the Labor Code, section 1194, already provides for just a one-way fee-shifting provision, providing attorney’s fees to employees who are successful in proving their overtime and minimum wage claims, but not corresponding attorney’s fees to successful employers.

In other words, the Labor Code, which is already quite lopsided in favor of employees seeking attorney’s fees, has just become more lopsided.

The meaning of the law’s “bad faith” provision is also far from certain. Until subsequent litigation settles the matter, we can only be guided by cases that have sought to define “bad faith” in similar contexts.

For example, in Gemini Aluminum Corp v. Cal. Custom Shapes the Court dealt with a statute awarding attorney’s fees to successful defendants in claims under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, which provides such fees if a claim of misappropriation is made “in bad faith” – a term which, as in the present case, was not defined by the statute. The court ruled that “bad faith” requires objective “speciousness” of the plaintiff’s claim together with subjective bad faith in bringing or maintaining the claim.

If such a standard is adopted in the context of section 218.5, it might have the unexpected consequence of increasing the prevalence of discovery aimed at the subjective intentions of the plaintiff employee, which might conceivably justify more extensive inquiries into the employee’s personal life and circumstances. This is perhaps one small silver lining employers and employment defense attorneys can take away from what is, on the whole, a win for the plaintiff’s bar.

To discuss SB 462, or other aspects of wage and hour law, please contact the author.

Originally posted to Barger & Wolen's Employment Law Observer.

Could Medpay Be The Latest Target In California Bad Faith Claims?

Marina Karvelas was quoted in a July 18, 2013, article published by Claims Journal, Could Medpay Be The Latest Target In California Bad Faith Claims, about a recent appeals court decision in California dealing with bad faith claims related to medical payments coverage.

The case, Justin Barnes v. Western Heritage Insurance Company, involved a plaintiff who was injured at 11 years old when a table fell on his back during a recreational program. A superior court found that the plaintiff could not sue the recreational program provider's insurance for bad faith for denying him coverage in part because the plaintiff had already settled a suit against the program provider. The appeals court reversed the trial court's decision.

Karvelas told the Claims Journal that she thought the decision could increase bad faith claims relating to medical payments coverage if the decision survives scrutiny by the California Supreme Court.

The Barnes decision muddies the waters on the collateral source rule which up until this decision was fairly clear in California,” she said. “An insurance policy taken out and maintained by the alleged wrongdoer, including its medpay provisions, is not wholly independent of him/her and thus cannot be considered to be a collateral source.

“Stated simply, the injured plaintiff cannot recover against the tortfeasor under the liability provisions of the tortfeasor’s insurance policy and then sue the insurance company under the medpay provision of that same policy. The Barnes court concluded differently. The medpay provision in a tortfeasor’s liability policy can be construed as a collateral source. As a third party beneficiary of the medpay provisions, all the injured plaintiff has to do is allege the insurance company committed a wrongful act against him/her when handling the medpay claim. In Barnes, Western Heritage allegedly failed to notify the injured plaintiff of the one-year time limit to present medpay claims. The alleged failure violated California’s regulations governing the fair settlement of claims,” Karvelas said. “The Barnes decision is problematic for insurers not only with respect to the collateral source rule but reflects an ever increasing effort by California’s plaintiff’s bar to create private rights of action for violation of the fair claims settlement regulations.”

Karvelas also told the publication that policy changes to medical payments coverage may be looming.

“It may behoove insurers to add provisions to their liability policies that the Barnes court found were missing in the policy at issue. These would include provisions that reflect an intent that payment under the liability provisions of the policy extinguishes the insurer’s obligation under the medpay provisions of that same policy,” Karvelas said.

Originally posted to Barger & Wolen's Life, Health & Disability Insurance Law blog.

California Supreme Court Finally Decides How a UCL Claim and First Party Bad Faith Claim Can Co-Exist

On August 1, 2013, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Zhang v. Superior Court, holding that an insured may assert a claim against an insurer based on California’s Unfair Competition Law, Business & Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (the “UCL”) for conduct that allegedly constitutes common law bad faith, even if the alleged conduct also happens to violate the Unfair Insurance Practices Act (UIPA).   

The Supreme Court’s decision resolves a simmering conflict among lower court decisions. A number of courts held that the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Moradi-Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Companies, 46 Cal.3d 287 (1988), which abolished any private right of action to enforce the UIPA, precluded UCL claims based on specific unfair practices prohibited by Insurance Code section 790.03(h), which is part of the UIPA. Other courts found that Moradi-Shalal did not bar UCL claims when the basis for the UCL claim was common law bad faith, as opposed to the UIPA – even though the asserted “bad faith” practices are also prohibited under the UIPA.  The Supreme Court adopted the latter position, concluding:

We hold that Moradi-Shalal does not preclude first party UCL actions based on grounds independent from section 790.03, even when the insurer’s conduct also violates section 790.03.

While the Court’s opinion does not dwell on the facts of the case, the claim involved an insured’s purchase of a liability policy to cover her commercial property. The insured disputed the insurer’s handling of her fire damage claim and sued the insurer for breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (i.e., bad faith), and a violation of the UCL. 

The UCL claim alleged “unfair, deceptive, untrue, and/or misleading advertising” in that the insurer made promises as to coverage “when it had no intention of paying the true value of its insureds’ covered claims.”  The Court observed that the insured alleged “causes of action for false advertising and bad faith, both of which provide grounds for a UCL claim independent from the UIPA.”

The Zhang case was decided on demurrer. Thus, the Court considered only the allegations of the complaint, and it had to assume the truth of those factual allegations.

After presenting a thorough history of prior decisions over the last quarter century that have considered Moradi-Shalal’s effect on UCL lawsuits against insurers (and other defendants), the Supreme Court allowed the insured to pursue her UCL claim and observed,

Because Moradi-Shalal barred only claims brought under section 790.03, and expressly allowed first party [common law] bad faith actions, it preserved the gist of first party UCL claims based on allegations of [common law] bad faith. Moradi-Shalal imposed a formidable barrier, but not an insurmountable one.

As a result, the insured’s alleged claim of false advertising and “litany of bad faith practices” were “sufficient to support a claim of unlawful business practices.”

In summarizing its holding, the Court stated:

Private UIPA actions are absolutely barred, a litigant may not rely on the proscriptions of section 790.03 as the basis for a UCL claim. . . . However, when insurers engage in conduct that violates both the UIPA and obligations imposed by other statutes or the common law, a UCL action may lie.  The Legislature did not intend the UIPA to operate as a shield against any civil liability.

A concurring opinion written by Justice Werdegar and joined in by Justice Liu agreed with the majority conclusion that the insured should be allowed to pursue her UCL lawsuit against the insurer, but disagreed with the conclusion that no UCL claim could ever be based on violations of the UIPA unless the Legislature affirmatively intended to preclude such indirect enforcement.

While the Zhang decision is likely to generate much attention and be cited extensively in the future, the Court’s holding is nevertheless quite limited and the following points should be noted:

  • The decision is restricted to UCL claims brought by first parties; that is, by insureds.  The Court specifically advised two times that whether third parties may pursue UCL claims “is a matter beyond the scope of this case.”
  • The decision reiterated that while the scope of a UCL claim is broad (“any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising”), the remedies are very narrow – restitution and injunctions. Damages in any form are not recoverable.
  • The UCL does not allow for attorney’s fees (except in those cases where the plaintiff could qualify as a private attorney general under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5).
  • Since the UCL is solely an equitable claim, the trial court possesses “broad discretion” in issuing orders or judgments with respect to any restitution or injunctive relief, and defendants are allowed to advance not only various defenses to the UCL claim but also “equitable considerations” that could minimize or even eliminate a finding of a UCL violation.
  • The restrictions to a UCL claim added by Proposition 64 (standing to assert a UCL cause of action and complying with the class action requirements in any UCL action brought on behalf of others) still apply.
  • The Court referenced another lingering issue in UCL claims – what is the standard for determining what business acts or practices are “unfair” mean in the consumer context under the UCL. This issue, however, remains unsettled and for the Court to decide another day.

Finally, the most likely consequence of the Zhang decision is that insureds may, as a matter of course, add UCL claims to bad faith cases as one more cause of action, incorporating by reference the prior alleged bad faith allegations. Since any UCL claim does not allow a damage remedy, and the only monetary remedy is restitution, the ultimate impact of adding a UCL claim may be minimal.

How has New York law on bad faith claims against insurers developed since the Bi-Economy and Panasia decisions?

R. Steven Anderson and Kyle M. Medley provide analysis and historical perspective of two 2008 decisions from New York’s highest court. The full article, Tempest in a Teapot: New York’s Bi-Economy Decision Five Years Later, appears in The Association of Insurance & Reinsurance Run-Off Companies (AIRROC) quarterly journal, an excerpt appears below:

New York courts have a general reputation as being insurer-friendly in their resistance to policyholder claims for damages beyond policy coverage terms and limits. Historically, New York courts refused to recognize contract-based bad faith claims for breach of a first-party insurance contract. Insureds have fared no better proceeding under a tort theory of bad faith liability, absent “egregious tortious conduct” and “a pattern of similar conduct directed at the public generally.” See Roconova v. Equitable Life Assurance Society, 83 N.Y. 603, 615 (N.Y. 1994).

In 2008, however, two decisions by New York’s highest court – Bi-Economy Market, Inc. v. Harleysville Insurance Co., 10 N.Y.3d 187 (N.Y. 2008), and a companion decision handed down on the same day, Panasia Estates, Inc. v. Hudson Insurance Co., 10 N.Y.3d 200 (N.Y. 2008) – threatened to alter the legal landscape in New York by recognizing a policyholder’s right to seek recovery of consequential damages beyond policy limits where such damages were the direct consequence of insurer claims  handling that violated the insurer’s obligation of good faith and fair dealing and were foreseeable by the parties at the time the policy was issued.

The Bi-Economy decision initially caused jurists and insurers to speculate as to whether the decision had opened the floodgates to claims against insurers beyond policy limits. Much of the speculation centered on Judge Robert S. Smith’s strongly-worded dissent in Bi-Economy, which predicted that the majority’s decision would “open the door” to punitive damage claims against insurers in New York ..."

Click here to continue reading the full article

Insurer Has No Duty To Verify Accuracy of Insurance Application Representations

by James Hazlehurst

In American Way Cellular, Inc. v. Travelers Property Casualty Company of America, issued May 30, 2013, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District reaffirmed that insurers are not obligated to investigate and verify the accuracy of insurance application representations. 

American Way involved a commercial property policy issued by Travelers Property Casualty Company. American Way’s broker procured the policy and then submitted the application to Travelers’ agent on American Way’s behalf. The application, which had been completed by the broker, erroneously indicated that the subject property was equipped with smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and fire sprinklers. In fact, the property did not have fire sprinklers, and American Way’s principal purportedly never told the broker that the property was so equipped.

Travelers issued a policy to American Way which required it to maintain the fire sprinkler system as a condition of coverage. The policy further provided that Travelers had the right – but not the obligation – to inspect the property at any time.     

American Way subsequently made a claim on the policy for a fire loss. Travelers paid the claim pending its investigation of the loss; however, upon discovering that the property was not equipped with fire sprinklers, it informed American Way that the loss did not appear to be covered and that it would seek to recover the claim payment. 

American Way then sued Travelers for declaratory relief, breach of contract, bad faith and negligence. Travelers cross-complained for declaratory relief and reimbursement of the claim payment. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Travelers on both American Way’s complaint and Travelers’ cross-complaint. 

On appeal, American Way argued, among other things, that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because Travelers negligently wrote an insurance policy without inspecting the premises and because there were triable issues of material fact regarding whether the broker was Travelers’ actual or ostensible agent. 

The appellate court disagreed, explaining that “an insurer does not have the duty to investigate the insured’s statements made in an insurance application and to verify the accuracy of the representations.” “Rather, it is the insured’s duty to divulge fully all he or she knows.” Moreover, while the policy permitted Travelers to inspect the property, it did not require that Travelers do so.   

Additionally, in order to prevail against Travelers, American Way had to show that the broker also acted as Travelers’ agent. The evidence presented to the trial court on summary judgment – including the broker’s own admission – showed that the broker acted on behalf of American Way only and was not Travelers’ agent. Accordingly, the appellate court concluded that Travelers could not be liable for the broker’s purported negligence.

David McMahon to Present at ACI 2013 Bad Faith Conference`

San Francisco partner David McMahon will speak on Understanding the Scope and Limits of Duty to Defend, Duty to Settle, and Initiating Settlement Negotiations at the upcoming ACI Bad Faith Litigation Forum (April 29-30, 2013 | Union League, PA).

Joining Mr. McMahon on the panel are Daniel W. Maguire, Partner, Burke, Williams & Sorensen; Mark S. Shapiro, Shareholder, Akerman Senterfitt; Robert N. Kelly, Director and Shareholder, Jackson & Campbell; and, David B. Drummy, Partner, Kightlinger & Gray.

For more information on the conference, click here.

Du Two - Ninth Circuit Backs Off on Controversial Duty to Settle Decision

 

In June 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Du v. Allstate Insurance Company that asserted a liability insurer must “effectuate” or initiate a settlement within policy limits after liability has become reasonably clear. That decision generated extensive criticism, including on this blog.

Less than four months later, some semblance of balance has been restored with the issuance of the Ninth Circuit’s October 5, 2012 amended decision in Du. The amended decision replaces the court’s prior ruling and, most significantly, relegates its prior ruling as to the duty to “effectuate” settlement to merely raising the concept but concluding that it “need not resolve” this legal issue. 

Whatever the reason for the court’s retreat, the Ninth Circuit panel found, as it did in its original decision, that a jury instruction proffered by the plaintiff that raised the duty to “effectuate” settlement issue was not supported by the evidence and thus the trial court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting the instruction.

While the amended decision still references case law that it asserts extends “the duty to settle beyond mere acceptance of a reasonable settlement demand,” it also cites to California case law “suggesting no breach of the good faith duty to settle can be found in the absence of a settlement demand, the typical context in which the duty has been found.”  While this language will remain in the final decision, at most it is only dicta.

The amended decision also backtracked on another criticized finding, namely, that the “genuine dispute doctrine” does not apply to third party duty to settle cases.  Once again, while the original decision found the doctrine did not apply in third party cases, the amended decision advised: “[w]e need not resolve” this legal issue. 

Hopefully, with the issuance of the amended decision in Du, the parameters of the “duty to settle” under California law have been substantially restored.

Insurers Can Only Seek to Pay "Cumis" Rates if They are Actually Defending the Insured

In a decision issued March 25, 2011, The Housing Group v. PMA Capital Insurance Co., the California Court of Appeal held that an insurer who is not actually defending its insured cannot pursue its rights under California Civil Code section 2860, and specifically the right to arbitrate the issue as to the hourly rate for “independent counsel” chosen by the insured when there is a conflict of interest between the insured and the insurer.

Under section 2860(c), an insurer’s obligation to pay such independent counsel “is limited to the rates which are actually paid by the insurer to attorneys retained by it in the ordinary course of business in the defense of similar actions in the community where the claim arose or is being defended.” 

Since substantial evidence supports the trial court’s finding that the insurer failed to provide a defense in the underlying litigation, the insurer was precluded from invoking the arbitration remedy for Cumis fee disputes in section 2860(c).

This recent decision was discussed in more length in a blog posted by David McMahon in Barger & Wolen’s Litigation Management & Attorney Fee Analysis blog.

Large "Bad Faith" Verdict Raises Two Intriguing Issues

The verdict by a Los Angeles jury last week awarding a health insurance claimant over $19 million raises a pair of issues of interest to health and disability insurers. 

In Thomas Nickerson v. Stonebridge Life Insurance Company, the plaintiff, an ex-Marine, sought payment for 109 days in the hospital after a fall. The insurance company believed expenses for only 19 of those days were medically necessary. A jury awarded Nickerson $35,000 in emotional distress damages, plus $19 million in punitive damages. 

As this case undoubtedly proceeds, first in a motion directed to the trial judge, and then likely on appeal, one issue that will be addressed is the appropriate amount of punitive damages that should be permitted (assuming any punitive damages survive). 

Case law in recent years has established that except in the most extraordinary circumstances, punitive damages should not exceed other compensatory damages by more than a single digit ratio. Some courts have even opined that a 4:1 ratio is the maximum amount to be awarded, and that a 2:1 or even 1:1 ratio would be more appropriate. 

Here, the ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages somewhat exceeds the above guidelines -- it pencils out to 543:1. It's true that depending on the level of reprehensibility of a defendant's conduct, and where compensatory damages are nominal, the courts may be open to approving punitive awards in excess of a the above ratios, but those circumstances do not appear to apply in this case. 

The second issue raised by the Nickerson case is the alleged obligation by an insurer to accept or give great deference to the opinion of an insured's physician, with respect to the question of medical necessity under a health policy. 

Nickerson's lawyer, William Shernoff of the Claremont, California firm of Shernoff Bidart & Echeverria LLP, has expressed the hope that this case will lead to a recognition by the courts that the medical judgment of policyholders' treating physicians should be accepted by carriers. 

In fact, this case is unlikely to lead to such a result.  

Appellate courts have long recognized that the issue of medical necessity should not be one that is dictated by the view of any particular expert or practitioner, but instead should turn on which party presents the most compelling evidence on the coverage question. 

The notion that a policyholder's doctor has a monopoly on truth or good judgment, especially when that physician may hold a view based on a longstanding affinity for a patient, and an unquestioning acceptance of self-reported symptoms that may or may not be reliable in light of clinical or objective testing, is unlikely to find favor with the bench officers asked to decide coverage questions.

Los Angeles Jury Finds Health Insurer is Required to Pay for Out-of-State Liver Transplant

With the backdrop of the raging battle over healthcare reform, a Los Angeles jury rendered on Monday a verdict in favor of an insured against Anthem Blue Cross arising out of the health insurer’s refusal to provide coverage for an out-of-state liver transplant. The case, Ephram Nehme v. Wellpoint, Inc.; Blue Cross of California d/b/a/ Anthem Blue Cross, initially filed on August 14, 2008, has been closely followed in the legal and health insurance communities.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the jury found, by a vote of 10-2, that Anthem Blue Cross had breached its contract by refusing to pay for the cost of the out-of-state transplant operation, and by a vote of 9-3 that Anthem Blue Cross had acted in bad faith. Anthem Blue Cross stated in the article that its contract provides that transplants must be preformed in California and that it had approved Nehme for a transplant at UCLA Medical Center once his name came up on the UCLA waiting list. The same article stated that the jury awarded Nehme $206,000 for the cost of the operation, and that he would also be able to recoup his legal fees. (Under California law, pursuant to the decision in Brandt v. Superior Court, upon a finding that an insurer has acted in bad faith, the insured is able to seek to recover only those attorney’s fees incurred to obtain the contract benefits, but not the fees incurred to show bad faith.) The jury did not, however, award any punitive damages against Anthem Blue Cross.

The trial court proceedings are not yet concluded, with further post-trial motions to be filed, and it is unknown whether Anthem Blue Cross will appeal the jury’s verdict.

Court of Appeal Reaffirms Need for Insurers to Notify Insureds of Contractual Limitation Periods and to Re-Check the Insured's Application Statements

California Insurance Code of Regulations, specifically 10 CCR § 2695.4, requires that an insurer notify its insureds of any contractual time limitation after the insured or beneficiary submits his or her claim. In the California Court of Appeal’s January 21, 2010 decision in Superior Dispatch v. Insurance Corporation of New York, the court found the failure to provide the notice required by § 2695.4 results in the insurer’s inability to rely on the contractual limitation provision in precluding litigation. 

In legal parlance, the appellate court found that the insurer was “equitably estopped” from benefiting from the contractual limitation provision. Being “estopped” from doing something is the same as being barred or blocked from doing something. When someone or an entity is equitably estopped from doing something, they are being barred or blocked from doing something based upon traditional notions of fairness or justice. 

Based on prior precedents, the court held that enforcing compliance with § 2695.4 in a way to negate the contractual limitation provision (despite how conspicuous the term was in the policy) was needed to “remedy the trap for the unwary.” This is especially troubling for insurers who are not intending to “trap” anyone, but expect that the policy will be enforced as a contract between the insurer and the insured (i.e., an insurer who expects the terms of policies that were agreed to by both parties to be enforced). Thus a warning to insurers is necessary: Just because the insured agrees to a term by purchasing the policy and has the opportunity to read the entire policy, the insurer cannot expect that all the terms will be enforced by California courts. In this case, the insurer must go beyond what is required in the policy and provide specific notice of the provision in the policy, despite the insured’s ability to read it for himself. The court went further in holding that the insurer needs to still provide notice of the contractual limitation even when the insurer knows that the insured is represented by counsel. 

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Appellate Court Finds Insured's Failure to Allege the Actual Theory of Liability on Which the Trial Court Based Its Judgment Requires Reversal of Bad Faith Judgment

In a lengthy decision issued by the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, and one that examined and summarized a whole host of liability insurance issues (including an insurer’s duty to defend, what constitutes “unreasonable” conduct for “bad faith” purposes, how changes in the law impact the issue of bad faith, and the ability of an insurer to recoup defense costs under a reservation of rights), the court reversed an $11 million judgment against an insurer and then ruled in favor of the insurer.

Griffin Dewatering Corp. v. Northern Ins. Co. of New York, issued July 31, 2009, involved a groundwater pumping and control company that purchased a CGL policy from Northern Insurance Company. In exchange for renewing that coverage, Northern orally promised during a meeting in 1997 that it would not rely on the policy’s total pollution exclusion with respect to “future” claims involving sewage. There had been a prior claim involving a faulty sewer bypass constructed by the insured that the insurer had denied. When there was a future claim that related to the prior claim, the insurer denied coverage again, and one of the questions was whether this future claim was covered by the oral promise. (The insurer shortly thereafter accepted coverage for the claim, but that did not short circuit the insured’s bad faith lawsuit.)

The insured prevailed at trial against the insurer based on the oral promise, and it obtained a judgment of $11 million, mostly in bad faith tort damages. The insurer appealed and prevailed.  The Court of Appeal based its decision in large part on the failure of insured to have actually pled in its complaint a cause of action based on the oral promise through which it had obtained the judgment.  Instead, the complaint was predicated on the straightforward coverage question as to whether the insurer had misconstrued the language of the exclusion provision so as to unreasonably deny coverage.  Moreover, the complaint had never been amended to include any “stand alone” cause of action based on the oral promise, and counsel for the insured conceded that it was only going to use the promise as a “concession” that the insurer’s “coverage position had been unreasonable all along.”

The Court of Appeal’s decision, while very detailed, makes for interesting reading as it effectively distills current California law as to a number of bad faith and duty to defend topics.   Further, the decision is interspersed with humor and a search for the real story, conceding in its opening words, “At first we did not know what to make of this case.”  By the end of the decision, the court had found the answer.  

 

The United States Supreme Court Applies Equitable Principles in Favor of Insurers in Enforcing Settlement Trust Order by Bankruptcy Court of Questionable Jurisdiction

The Supreme Court in Travelers Indemnity Company v. Bailey, 57 U.S. ___ (2009) last week reversed a Second Circuit opinion that could have caused insurance companies concerns when contributing to a settlement fund to resolve mass tort claims in Bankruptcy Court. 

More than 20 years ago, in 1986, a federal bankruptcy court issued an order that discharged one of the largest producers of products containing asbestos, Johns-Manville Corporation, and each of its insurers from all future tort liability arising under the company’s indemnity policies. Johns-Manville’s primary indemnity insurer, Travelers, deposited $80 million (the full value of their policies) into a settlement trust for all potential claimants, which was intended to cut-off all of Travelers’ future liability due to relationship with the company. 

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