California Court of Appeal Again Finds No Stacking of Liability Policy Limits

Nearly two years ago, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District issued a decision that upheld the concept of horizontal exhaustion of primary liability policy limits before triggering the obligation of an excess insurer, but also concluded that, in the context of that case, there was no stacking of liability insurance policies. The case was Kaiser Cement and Gypsum Corp. v. Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, and we reported on it in this blog.

The California Supreme Court accepted review of Kaiser Cement, but then returned the case to the Court of Appeal after the Supreme Court issued its decision in State of California v. Continental Insurance Co., 55 Cal. 4th 186 (2012), a decision we also reported on in a prior blog

In Continental, the Supreme Court adopted the “all-sums-with-stacking” approach to addressing indemnification for continuous injury cases. With respect to the stacking issue, the Court found that allowing the insured to “stack” its policies and recover up to the policy limits of all the triggered policies was not only the correct rule based on the policy language but also the equitable result and one that can be achieved “with a comparatively uncomplicated calculation.” The Court, however, advised that insurers may be able to enforce “anti-stacking” provisions in their policies to avoid such a result.  

In the unanimous opinion of the Court of Appeal panel in Kaiser Cement, the primary policy considered in that case contained such language that precluding stacking of policy limits. Other than its addition of a brief section on the Continental decision (and some other minor revisions), the second opinion in Kaiser Cement, issued April 8, 2013, is virtually identical to the prior opinion issued June 3, 2011.

The underlying dispute involved coverage obligations for thousands of asbestos bodily injury claims brought against Kaiser, and in an even earlier decision, the appellate court held that asbestos bodily injury claims should be treated as multiple occurrences under the primary policies issued to Kaiser by Truck Insurance Exchange, rather than one single occurrence for multiple claimants. The primary policies all had non-aggregating per-occurrence limits, meaning the policies potentially could be on the hook for the total per-occurrence limit for each occurrence.

The present appeal addressed the situation as to whether, when an asbestos bodily injury claim exceeded the primary coverage issued by Truck in a particular year, the excess coverage issued by Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania (“ICSOP”) was triggered to provide indemnification to Kaiser. Because the case involved asbestos bodily injury, which continues to cause injury over time, even with a single claimant, a claim could trigger coverage in multiple policy years, and ICSOP argued that the insured had to exhaust all underlying primary policies for all years in which coverage was triggered. Kaiser and Truck both argued that the ICSOP excess policy was triggered upon exhaustion of the single $500,000 per occurrence limit.

The 2013 Kaiser Cement decision, just like the one in 2011, issued three holdings:

First, it held that the excess insurer ICSOP was entitled to horizontally exhaust all underlying primary insurance that was collectible and valid, and not just those policies directly underneath its excess policy.

The second holding, however, concluded that ICSOP was not able to “stack” the individual limits of the Truck primary policies. The court did not base this holding on judicially imposed anti-stacking principles, but rather concluded that under the particular language of the Truck policies, Truck could only be liable as a company for one per-occurrence limit for each occurrence. Specifically, the court cited the language in the insuring agreement stating that,

the Company’s liability as respects any occurrence . . . shall not exceed the per occurrence limit designated in the Declarations. (Italics added by court.) 

Thus, the court permitted horizontal exhaustion in principle but held that there was no valid and collectible insurance to horizontally exhaust in this case since Kaiser was only entitled to one per-occurrence limit for Truck as a whole for claims that exceeded the $500,000 per occurrence limit in the implicated Truck policy.

It was in this part of the Court’s analysis that it considered and analyzed the Continental decision, explaining that its “conclusion that Kaiser may not ‘stack’ Truck’s annual liability limits is consistent with the Supreme Court’s analysis in Continental” because Truck’s policy language was the type of provision envisioned by the Continental decision that precluded the stacking of policy limits for any one occurrence.  

Finally, as with the prior decision in Kaiser Cement, the Court of Appeal found that the summary judgment that had been issued by the trial court in favor of Kaiser had to be reversed because, on the present record, the appellate court could not determine if there was primary coverage issued to Kaiser by other insurers (outside of Truck) whose primary policies still needed to be exhausted under the court’s horizontal exhaustion ruling.

As of the moment, the Kaiser Cement decision remains citable law, though its status could change if review is sought from the Supreme Court and such review is accepted.

Barring such action, the case is helpful to excess insures as it affirms the obligation that horizontal exhaustion of all primary insurance is still the rule in the continuous occurrence context.

For primary insurers, the case affords the opportunity to avoid stacking of policy limits in those situations in which specific policy language precludes triggering more than one policy limit per occurrence. As we noted in our prior blog on the Kaiser Cement case, a careful review of the specific policy language found in each primary and excess policy at issue is required.

Standard CGL Policy "Personal Injury" Coverage Excludes Defense for Housing Discrimination, But Broader Umbrella Policy Provides Duty to Defend

By Samuel Sorich and Larry Golub

In Federal Insurance Company v. Steadfast Insurance Company, issued September 24, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, held that two primary liability policies that provided “personal injury” coverage for wrongful eviction, wrongful entry and invasion of the right of private occupancy did not impose a duty to defend a complaint alleging discriminatory in housing. At the same time, an umbrella policy that specifically covered discrimination did obligate that insurer to defend the insured.

Sterling managed rental properties. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against Sterling alleging discrimination based on race, national origin and familial status in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The complaint alleged, among other things, that Sterling perpetuated an environment that was hostile to non-Korean tenants, provided inferior treatment to non-Korean tenants, and refused to rent and discriminated against African Americans. The Department of Justice asserted that Sterling’s discriminatory practices included entering a tenant’s apartment without notice or knocking.

Sterling had two primary liability policies, one for two years with Steadfast Insurance Company followed by three years of coverage with Liberty Surplus Insurance Corporation, and excess-umbrella policies for several years with Federal Insurance Company. The Steadfast and Liberty policies were standard primary policies and provided coverage for “personal injury” resulting from wrongful eviction, wrongful entry or invasion of the right of private occupancy. The umbrella portion of the Federal policies’ “personal injury” coverage not only defined such coverage to include wrongful eviction, wrongful entry and invasion of the right of private occupancy but also covered discrimination based on race or national origin.

Sterling tendered its defense of the Fair Housing Act complaint to the three insurers. When Steadfast and Liberty refused to defend the action, Federal defended under a reservation of rights and then brought a coverage action against the two primary insurers. Steadfast also brought a cross-action against Federal.  

Federal contended that Steadfast and Liberty, as primary insurers, had a duty to defend; and because the insurers had a duty to defend, Federal’s duty to defend under its umbrella coverage did not attach. Federal based its position on the argument that Sterling’s creation of a hostile environment for the tenants amounted to a claim of constructive eviction, thus falling under the personal injury coverage for wrongful eviction, wrongful entry, and the invasion of the right of private occupancy in the Steadfast and Liberty policies. 

The trial court, on cross-motions for summary judgment, found that only Federal’s umbrella policy provided coverage, and not the two primary policies. An appeal followed..

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that even though the complaint for discrimination alleged acts that might involve wrongful evictions, wrongful entries, or invasions of the right of private occupancy, the essential nature of the complaint was a Fair Housing Act enforcement action.

The court concluded the complaint “cannot be construed as asserting common law theories of wrongful eviction, wrongful entry, or invasion of the right of private occupancy. Only the tenant can claim wrongful eviction, wrongful entry, or invasion of the right of private occupancy.”

The court ruled that neither Steadfast nor Liberty had a duty to defend the Fair Housing Act action, but Federal did have a duty to defend Sterling. The court’s opinion explained,

Because the Sterling action was based on discrimination and only the Federal policies, and not the Steadfast or Liberty policies, provided coverage for discrimination claims, the umbrella coverage in the Federal policies ‘dropped down’ to fill the gap in the Steadfast and Liberty policies and provide primary coverage in the Sterling action.

Court Holds Insurer Not Required to Prove Prejudice to Deny Coverage Based on Notice Condition

In Venoco, Inc. v. Gulf Underwriters Ins. Co., 2009 WL 1875640 (July 1, 2009), the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a summary judgment entered in favor of Gulf Underwriters Insurance Company (“Gulf”) with regard to Venoco’s suit brought against Gulf for indemnification and a defense for lawsuits filed against it by former students and employees of Beverly Hills High School for personal injuries allegedly arising out of exposure to toxic pollution from Venoco’s oil and gas operations performed adjacent to the high school campus.

Gulf asserted that Venoco’s claim for a defense under the policy was not covered by virtue of an exclusion for instances of toxic pollution. However, an exception to the exclusion, a “buy-back” provision, provided that if Venoco notified Gulf of an occurrence within sixty (60) days of such occurrence, the toxic pollution exclusion would not apply so as to preclude coverage. 

 

Gulf moved for summary judgment in the trial court claiming it had no duty to defend or indemnify Venoco because it had failed to provide notice of the lawsuits brought by the former high school students and employees within the 60-day notice period. Venoco argued in part that the notice requirement was invalid, unfair and unusual because it was hidden in the policy, and it was also a violation of public policy.  It further argued that Gulf’s reliance on the notice requirement was barred by California’s “notice-prejudice” rule which operates to bar insurance companies from disavowing coverage on the basis of lack of timely notice unless the insurance company can show actual prejudice from the delay.  

 

Specifically, Venoco argued that because Gulf could not show it was actually prejudiced as a result of Venoco’s delay in reporting, that it could not rely on the notice requirement to deny coverage. The trial court granted Gulf’s motion finding that it was undisputed that Venoco did not comply with the 60-day notice requirement, that the 60-day requirement was not unusual or unfair under the law, and that the notice-prejudice rule did not bar Gulf’s disavowal of coverage. 

 

The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed. It held that pollution buy-back provisions containing reporting time limits were not unusual in the oil industry, and further were not unfair or against public policy. It further rejected Venoco’s argument that the 60-day reporting requirement was unenforceable because Gulf did not prove it would suffer prejudice if notice were given later than 60 days.  Rather, it held that where a policy provides that special coverage for a particular type of claim is conditioned on express compliance with a reporting requirement, the time limit is enforceable without proof of prejudice.