Insurance Coverage for Wrongful Incarceration Claims in Ohio

Over the past 18 months, we have examined numerous states’ approaches to insurance coverage for underlying claims of wrongful incarceration and malicious prosecution. See here, here, here and here.

Last summer, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, interpreting Ohio law, weighed in on this issue. Selective Ins. Co. v. RLI Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 16327 (6th Cir. Aug. 24, 2017). The Sixth Circuit ruled that the district court erred in finding an excess insurer liable for a settlement of an underlying malicious prosecution claim arising out of a claimant’s wrongful conviction. The court concluded that coverage was not triggered because the claim did not occur until several months after the policy period expired, when police withheld new exculpatory evidence from the wrongfully convicted claimant and there was no longer probable cause for the claimant’s arrest and prosecution.

In Selective, “Insurer A” issued an excess policy to the City of Barberton (“City”) from June 29, 1997 to June 29, 1998, and “Insurer B” issued an excess policy to the City from June 29, 1998 to June 29, 1999. The underlying claimant, who was exonerated of rape and murder based on DNA evidence after spending several years in jail, sued the City and its police officers, alleging violations of state law and his federal constitutional rights. All claims against the City were dismissed. The surviving claims against the individual officers included a § 1983 claim for a violation of due process based on the officers’ failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, and state law claims of malicious prosecution and loss of consortium. Specifically, the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, i.e., the Brady violation, involved an inter-departmental memorandum that a police officer drafted identifying a suspect in two other aggravated robberies as the likely suspect in the claimant’s rape and murder case. The civil case settled for $5.25 million, to which Insurer B contributed $3.25 million. Insurer A denied coverage, claiming that the malicious prosecution of the claimant did not “occur” during its policy period.

As part of the settlement, Insurer B took an assignment of rights from the insured and filed suit against Insurer A for a declaration of coverage under Insurer A’s policy. Insurer B argued on summary judgment that the malicious prosecution of the claimant “occurred” when the charges were filed against the claimant on June 11, 1998. As a result, coverage was triggered under Insurer A’s policy, whose policy period ended on June 29, 1998. Insurer A also moved for summary judgment, arguing that the tort of malicious prosecution occurred at the time of the Brady violation, which occurred in January 1999, six months after its policy expired.

The district court disagreed with Insurer A, stating that although the January 1999 concealment of exculpatory evidence was enough on its own for the claimant’s malicious prosecution claim, there was also evidence of wrongdoing by the police officers during the earlier policy period, such as the dismissal of alibi witnesses and a DNA mismatch. Therefore, the claimant may have had a viable malicious prosecution claim even prior to the alleged Brady violation, during the first policy period. The district court then relied on what it called the “majority rule” from other jurisdictions as to trigger of coverage for malicious prosecution claims, holding that coverage for such claims is triggered at the time that the underlying charges are filed. Because the claimant was first arrested during the first policy period, the court ruled that Insurer A owed coverage and had to reimburse Insurer B.

On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, Insurer A again argued that it was not liable for the excess liability claim because no tort occurred during the policy. The Sixth Circuit agreed, concluding that the district court erred in finding Insurer A liable for the settlement. According to the court, because there was probable cause to prosecute and detain the claimant until exculpatory evidence came into existence, the officers’ actions before the exculpatory evidence came into existence could not have caused a covered loss under the RLI policy. The court explained that under Ohio law, malicious prosecution requires the instituting or continuing of prosecution without probable cause. In Ohio, a claimant can recover for a prosecution that was not malicious at its inception, but became malicious later, when it continued without probable cause. The key issue is whether there was probable cause and when such probable cause disappeared. The court determined that in the underlying matter, the City and police officers had probable cause until the alleged Brady violation, such that the malicious prosecution and the deprivation of due process could only have occurred in January 1999, after expiration of Insurer A’s policy period. Therefore, the court concluded that under the plain language of the policy, the police officers’ liability to claimant was not covered under Insurer A’s policy.

The Sixth Circuit distinguished the district court’s “majority rule” based upon the policy language at issue in Insurer A’s policy and because none of the cases relied upon dealt with a situation like claimant’s case, “where the injury—i.e., the filing of charges—occurred before any tortious activity, and therefore could not have been caused by the tortious activity.”

This case demonstrates the importance of carefully analyzing the specific elements of a malicious prosecution claim in a particular jurisdiction, as well as the specific policy language at issue. Such careful analysis translates to a predictable conclusion in trigger of coverage for wrongful incarceration cases.

The next installment will review the law in Mississippi. In the meantime, if there are any questions about other jurisdictions or jurisdictions already discussed, please contact us ([email protected] or [email protected]) and we can address your questions directly.

Employer’s Liability Insurer Not Obligated to Cover Claims Alleging Intentional Conduct

In Seneca Ins. Co. v. Cybernet Entertainment, LLC, et al., No. 16-cv-06554, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that the State Insurance Compensation Fund (“State Fund”) has no duty to defend Cybernet Entertainment, LLC (“Cybernet”), a producer of adult films, in a series of personal injury lawsuits filed by three actors alleging that they contracted human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) while on set. Cybernet maintained a Workers’ Compensation and Employer’s Liability Insurance Policy (the “Policy”) issued by the State Fund, and the instant dispute arose after Cybernet sought coverage to defend the underlying lawsuits.

After contracting HIV, the actors sought workers’ compensation benefits pursuant to the Act and under the Policy. The State Fund initially paid partial benefits to two of the three actors, but denied liability for the third actor’s claims. The actors thereafter filed civil actions against Cybernet in California State Court. Cybernet unsuccessfully responded to the lawsuits by demurring on grounds that California workers’ compensation provided an exclusive remedy and barred all tort claims. The State Fund agreed to defend Cybernet in these lawsuits subject to a reservation of rights, but later denied coverage after the California Superior Court overruled the demurrers, citing exclusions in the employer’s liability section of the Policy for claims (1) covered by workers’ compensation and (2) arising from Cybernet’s intentional actions.

By way of background, the Act provides a comprehensive system of remedies for workers who suffer injuries in the course and scope of their employment. The Act provides, in part, that workers’ compensation is the “sole and exclusive remedy of the employee…against the employer.” Cal. Lab. Code § 3602(a). California Courts apply a two-pronged test to determine whether the Act preempts tort claims – (1) the injury must arise out of an in the course of the employment; and (2) the act giving rise to the injury must constitute a risk reasonably encompassed within the compensation bargain between employee and employer. See Shoemaker v. Myers, 801 P.2d 1054 (1990). The Court found that claims based upon the allegedly negligent conduct of Cybernet (negligent supervision, negligent hiring, etc.) were preempted under the Act and no duty to defend existed under the Policy, which excludes “any obligation imposed by a workers’ compensation…benefits law.”

The Court was equivocal with respect to the preemptive impact of the Act on claims arising from the allegedly intentional conduct of Cybernet (intentional misrepresentation, fraud, battery, etc.), but found that the language of the Policy obviated any need for a decision under the Act. The Court framed the issue as follows: “to the extent that plaintiffs’ claims arise from Cybernet’s intentional conduct and therefore are not necessarily preempted…the issue becomes whether the State Fund has a duty to defend Cybernet with regard to these claims under the terms of the Policy.” Generally, the Policy provides “liability insurance” for “bodily injury by accident or…disease” and defines “accident” as “an event that is neither expected nor intended from the standpoint of the insured.” The State Fund argued that Cybernet was not entitled to coverage for any claims arising from intentional actions because the Policy excludes coverage for any “injury intentionally caused or aggravated” by Cybernet. The Court agreed, granting the State Fund’s partial motion for summary judgment, reasoning that no coverage exists and finding that the State Fund has no duty to defend Cybernet from claims arising from its allegedly intentional acts.

No Duty to Defend Drug Makers in Actions Alleging Deceptive Marketing Fueled Opioid Abuse and Addiction

On November 6, 2017, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District affirmed a trial judge’s decision that The Traveler’s Property Casualty Company of America (“Travelers”) did not owe a duty to defend various pharmaceutical manufacturers in two actions alleging deceptive marketing of opioid products because the alleged injuries in the underlying actions were not caused by an accident. Traveler’s Prop. Cas. Co. of Am. v. Actavis, Inc. (Nov. 6, 2017, No. G053749) 2017 Cal. App. LEXIS 976.

The County of Santa Clara and the County of Orange brought a lawsuit (the “California action”) against Actavis, Inc. and other pharmaceutical companies engaged in a “common, sophisticated, and highly deceptive marketing campaign” designed to increase the sale of opioid products by promoting them for treatment of long-term chronic pain, a purpose for which Actavis allegedly knew its opioid products were not suited. The City of Chicago brought a separate lawsuit (the “Chicago action”) against Actavis making essentially the same allegations. Both actions alleged that Actavis’ marketing scheme resulted in a “catastrophic” and nationwide “opioid-induced ‘public health epidemic’” and a resurgence in heroin use. Both actions also alleged that the Counties and City have and will incur increased costs of care and services to their citizens injured by prescription and illegal opioid abuse and addiction.

Travelers declined any duty to defend under commercial general liability policies issued by Travelers and St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co. (collectively “Travelers”), and brought this action seeking a declaration that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Actavis with respect to both actions.

The St. Paul policies cover “damages for covered bodily injury or property damage” that are “caused by an event.” The policies defined “event” to mean “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” Similarly, the Travelers policies cover damages “because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’” caused by an “occurrence.” The term “occurrence” is also defined as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” The St. Paul and Travelers policies also include product exclusions that bar coverage for bodily injury or property damage resulting from or arising out of “your product” or “your work.”

Following a bench trial on stipulated facts, the trial court issued a statement of decision concluding that neither the California nor Chicago action alleged an “accident” as required by the policies to create a duty to defend, and the product exclusions precluded coverage for the claims.

The Court of Appeal agreed, noting that under California law, a deliberate act is not an accident, even if the resulting injury was unintended, unless the injury was caused by an additional, unexpected, independent, and unforeseen happening. The Court found that the allegations that Actavis engaged in “a common, sophisticated, and highly deceptive marking campaign” to increase the sale of opioids and corporate profits “can only describe deliberate, intentional acts” for which there could be no insurable “accident” unless “some additional, unexpected, independent, and unforeseen happening” produced the injuries alleged in the underlying actions.

The Court rejected Actavis’ assertion that the injuries were indirect and unintended results caused by “mere negligence and fortuities” outside of Actavis’ control. “[W]hether [Actavis] intended to cause injury or mistakenly believed its deliberate conduct would not or could not produce injury is irrelevant to determining whether an insurable accident occurred.” Instead, the Court must look to “whether the California Complaint and the Chicago Complaint allege, directly or by inference, it was [Actavis’] deliberate conduct, or an additional, unexpected, independent, and unforeseen happening, that produced the alleged injuries.” The Court found that it was neither unexpected nor unforeseen that a massive marketing campaign to promote the use of opioids for purposes for which they are not suited would lead to a nation “awash in opioids” or an increase in opioid addiction and overdoses.

The Court also rejected Actavis’ contention that the alleged injuries are not the “normal consequences of the acts alleged” because in order for the opioid products to end up in the hands of abusers, doctors must prescribe the drugs to them. “The test, however, is not whether the consequences are normal; the test is whether an additional, unexpected, independent, and unforeseen happening produced the consequences.” The Court opined that the role of doctors in prescribing, or even misprescribing, opioids is not an independent or unforeseen happening.

Although the trial court declined to determine whether the California or Chicago actions sought damages because of potentially covered “bodily injury,” the Court found that those actions alleged two categories of “bodily injury”: (1) the use and abuse of opioid painkillers including overdose, addiction, death, and long-term disability; and (2) use and abuse of heroin, the resurgence of which was alleged to have been triggered by use and misuse of opioids. Applying a broad interpretation of “arising out of” as used in the product exclusions, the Court held that both categories of “bodily injury” arise out of Actavis’ opioid products, and are, therefore, barred by the product exclusions in the policies.

The Court also noted a split of authority whether product exclusions apply only to defective products. Although recognizing that the California Supreme Court has not addressed the issue, the Court agreed with the Florida Supreme Court’s reasoning in Taurus Holdings v. U.S. Fidelity (Fla. 2005) 913 So.2d 528, that the term “any product” in the product exclusions applies broadly and does not limit the application of the exclusions to defective products.

Actavis reaffirms California law that a deliberate act resulting in unintended injuries is not an “accident,” unless the injuries were caused by an additional, unexpected, independent, and unforeseen happening. This decision also reiterates California’s broad interpretation of “arising out of” as used in coverage provisions and exclusions.

Insurance Coverage for Malicious Prosecution Claims in Georgia

Until recently, Georgia has had no case law addressing insurance coverage trigger for a malicious prosecution claim. But in 2016, the Georgia Court of Appeals finally rendered an opinion addressing this specific issue, with a twist in that the claimant was arrested during the policy period but was charged and prosecuted after the policy expired.

In Zook v. Arch Specialty Ins. Co., 784 S.E.2d 119 (2016), the claimant was arrested on May 21, 2009 after an incident at the insured’s nightclub. The claimant was charged with simple battery on March 1, 2010 and was prosecuted thereafter. After the jury found the claimant not guilty of simple battery, he commenced a lawsuit against the nightclub and its employees for false imprisonment, battery, negligence, malicious prosecution and malicious arrest. While that action was pending, the claimant filed a declaratory judgment action against the same defendants and Arch Specialty Insurance Company (“Arch”), which issued a CGL policy (“Policy”) to the nightclub from June 27, 2008 to June 27, 2009. The policy provided coverage for injury arising out of malicious prosecution if the offense was committed during the policy period. Arch took the position that the “offense” took place on March 1, 2010, when the claimant was charged with the crime for which he was prosecuted (simple battery). Because the Policy expired on June 27, 2009, Arch argued that no offense took place during the policy period.  The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment to Arch.

The Georgia Court of Appeals, however, disagreed. The Court noted that Georgia appellate courts had not yet addressed the issue of when a malicious prosecution claim arises for purposes of triggering insurance coverage. The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the majority of other jurisdictions have held that “coverage is triggered when the insured sets in motion the legal machinery of the state.” Id. at 674. However, the Court disagreed with Arch’s interpretation of the majority holding because Arch focused on when the claimant was charged and relied on case law that dealt with a scenario in which the claimant was arrested and charged on the same date.

The Georgia Court of Appeals held that in this case, the arrest is the “bad act” of the insured that set the legal machinery of the state in action.  Id. at 675. In other words, the arrest was the “offense” that invoked the judicial process against the claimant, and the arrest took place during the Arch policy period. The Court held,

From the standpoint of a reasonable person in the position of the insured, policy coverage for injury arising from a malicious prosecution occurring during the policy period exists if the insured’s conduct in instituting such a prosecution took place during the covered period. For the foregoing reasons, we adopt the majority rule that when the contract does not specify, insurance coverage is triggered on a potential claim for malicious prosecution when the insured sets in motion the legal machinery of the state.

Id. at 675-6.

The analysis pertaining to the trigger of coverage for wrongful incarceration and malicious prosecution cases are becoming more intricate and detail-oriented as the courts throughout the country are exposed to different fact patterns. To the extent that the claimant is arrested and charged during different policy periods, it appears that the first event of the arrest will be considered as the event that triggers coverage.

The next installment will review the law in Ohio. In the meantime, if there are any questions about other jurisdictions or jurisdictions already discussed, please contact us ([email protected] or [email protected]) and we can address your questions directly.

Washington Supreme Court Denies Reconsideration of Its Decision to Apply the Efficient Proximate Cause Rule to a Third-Party Liability Policy

We previously reported the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Xia, et al. v. ProBuilders Specialty Insurance Company, et al., 188 Wn.2d 171, 393 P.3d 748 (2017), in which the Court applied the efficient proximate cause rule to a third-party liability policy to find a duty to defend.

To recap, Washington law requires insurers to assess and investigate coverage under first-party insurance policies by applying the efficient proximate cause analysis. Until Xia, the efficient proximate cause rule has only been applied to first party insurance policies in Washington. But the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Xia changed that by holding that an insurer must consider the efficient proximate cause rule in determining its duty to defend under a CGL policy.

The issue in Xia was whether the pollution exclusion applied to relieve ProBuilders of its duty to defend a claim against the insured alleging that carbon monoxide was released into the claimant’s house through a defectively installed vent. ProBuilders denied coverage to the insured contractor, in part, under the pollution exclusion. The Washington Supreme Court held that while ProBuilders did not err in determining that the plain language of its pollution exclusion applied to the release of carbon monoxide into Xia’s home, “under the ‘eight corners rule’ of reviewing the complaint and the insurance policy, ProBuilders should have noted that a potential issue of efficient proximate cause existed,” as Xia alleged negligence in her original complaint, i.e. failure to properly install venting for the hot water heater and failure to properly discover the disconnected venting.

Ultimately, the Court concluded that the efficient proximate cause of the claimant’s loss was a covered peril – the negligent installation of a hot water heater. Even though ProBuilders correctly applied the language of its pollution exclusion to the release of carbon monoxide into the house, the Court ruled that ProBuilders breached its duty to defend as it failed to consider an alleged covered occurrence that was the efficient proximate cause of the loss. The Court granted judgment as a matter of law to the claimant with regard to her breach of contract and bad faith claims.

Soon after the Washington Supreme Court’s decision, ProBuilders filed a motion asking the Court to reconsider its decision. However, on August 17, 2017, the Washington Supreme Court denied the motion, leaving in place the holding that insurers must take the efficient proximate cause rule when analyzing coverage under third-party policies.

As discussed in our earlier post, the efficient proximate cause rule applies “when two or more perils combine in sequence to cause a loss and a covered peril is the predominant or efficient cause of the loss.” Vision One, LLC v. Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Co., 174 Wn.2d 501, 276 P.3d 300 (2012). “If the initial event, the ‘efficient proximate cause,’ is a covered peril, then there is coverage under the policy regardless of whether subsequent events within the chain, which may be causes-in-fact of the loss, are excluded by the policy.” Key Tronic Corp., Inc. v. Aetna (CIGNA) Fire Underwriters Insurance Co., 124 Wn.2d 618, 881 P.2d 210 (1994).

Insurers must be extremely cautious when assessing the duty to defend and an exclusion that could potentially preclude coverage. Under Xia, liability insurers must examine the underlying complaint very carefully to determine whether there could potentially be multiple causes of a loss, and if so, which cause is the initiating cause. If the initiating cause is potentially a covered event, then there may be coverage and the insurer must provide a defense under reservation of rights in order to minimize bad faith exposure.

If you would like more information on the efficient proximate cause rule in Washington, please feel free to contact Sally S. Kim ([email protected] or 206-695-5147) or Stephanie Ries ([email protected] or 206-695-5123).

Washington Supreme Court Applies the Efficient Proximate Cause Rule to Third Party Liability Policy to Find a Duty to Defend

The efficient proximate cause rule is one of the more confusing analyses that an insurance company must undertake when investigating certain coverage issues under first party insurance policies. And until now, the efficient proximate cause rule has only been applied to first party insurance policies in Washington. But that has now changed with the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Xia, et al. v. ProBuilders Specialty Insurance Company, et al., Case No. 92436-8 (April 27, 2017). In Xia, the Washington Supreme Court not only ruled that an insurer must consider the efficient proximate cause rule in determining its duty to defend under a CGL policy, but that ProBuilders acted in bad faith by failing to do so, despite no prior precedent for application of the rule in a CGL coverage analysis.

In Xia, the claimant purchased a new home constructed by Issaquah Highlands 48 LLC (“Issaquah”), which was insured under a CGL policy issued by ProBuilders. The claimant fell ill soon after moving in due to inhalation of carbon monoxide, caused by improper installation of an exhaust vent.

The claimant notified Issaquah about the issue, and Issaquah notified ProBuilders. ProBuilders denied coverage under the pollution exclusion and a townhouse exclusion. The claimant filed a lawsuit, which Issaquah then settled by a stipulated judgment of $2 million with a covenant not to execute and an assignment of rights against ProBuilders. The claimant filed a declaratory judgment action against ProBuilders for breach of contract, bad faith, violation of the Consumer Protection Act and the Insurance Fair Conduct Act.

At the trial court level, ProBuilders won summary judgment on the townhouse exclusion. Division One of the Washington Court of Appeals reversed in part, finding that the pollution exclusion applied, but not the townhouse exclusion.

The Washington Supreme Court accepted review to determine whether the pollution exclusion applied to relieve ProBuilders of its duty to defend. The Court held that even though ProBuilders did not err in determining that the plain language of its pollution exclusion applied to the release of carbon monoxide into Xia’s home, “under the ‘eight corners rule’ of reviewing the complaint and the insurance policy, ProBuilders should have noted that a potential issue of efficient proximate cause existed,” as Xia alleged negligence in her original complaint, i.e. failure to properly install venting for the hot water heater and failure to properly discover the disconnected venting.

Ultimately, the Court concluded that the efficient proximate cause of the claimant’s loss was a covered peril – the negligent installation of a hot water heater. Even though ProBuilders correctly applied the language of its pollution exclusion to the release of carbon monoxide into the house, the Court ruled that ProBuilders breached its duty to defend as it failed to consider an alleged covered occurrence that was the efficient proximate cause of the loss. The Court granted judgment as a matter of law to the claimant with regard to her breach of contract and bad faith claims.

The application of the efficient proximate cause rule to CGL policies in Washington is troublesome for insurers. The Washington courts have long held in cases involving first party policies that under the efficient proximate cause rule, “[i]f the initial event, the “efficient proximate cause,’ is a covered peril, then there is coverage under the policy regardless whether subsequent events within the chain, which may be causes-in-fact of the loss, are excluded by the policy.” Key Tronic Corp., Inc. v. Aetna (CIGNA) Fire Underwriters Insurance Co., 124 Wn.2d 618, 881 P.2d 210 (1994). Also, the efficient proximate cause rule applies only “when two or more perils combine in sequence to cause a loss and a covered peril is the predominant or efficient cause of the loss.” Vision One, LLC v. Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Co., 174 Wn.2d 501, 276 P.3d 300 (2012).

In Xia, the Court noted that like any other covered peril under a general liability policy, an act of negligence may be the efficient proximate cause of a particular loss. “Having received valuable premiums for protection against harm caused by negligence, an insurer may not avoid liability merely because an excluded peril resulted from the initial covered peril.” Xia at *14. The Court stated:

…it is clear that a polluting occurrence happened when the hot water heater spewed forth toxic levels of carbon monoxide into Xia’s home. However, by applying the efficient proximate cause rule, it becomes equally clear that the ProBuilders policy provided coverage for this loss. The polluting occurrence here happened only after an initial covered occurrence, which was the negligent installation of a hot water heater that typically does not pollute when used as intended.

Xia at *17.

Justice Madsen took issue with the majority decision in a dissenting opinion, specifically with respect to a finding of bad faith when no other case prior to this decision had ever applied the efficient proximate cause rule to CGL policies. Justice Madsen also disagreed with the majority in extending the application of the efficient proximate cause rule to CGL policies when this Court specifically declined to do so in the earlier case of Quadrant Corp. v. American States Insurance Co., 154 Wn.2d 165, 110 P.3d 733 (2005).

The State of Washington unfortunately has been historically unkind to insurers on the duty to defend, and the Xia decision only further cements that reputation.

If you would like more information on the efficient proximate cause rule in Washington, please feel free to contact Sally S. Kim at [email protected] or (206) 695-5147.

Ninth Circuit Clarifies Excess Insurer’s Options Under For Proposed Settlements That Invades Excess Layer Of Coverage

A recent decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals clarified an excess insurer’s options under California law when it is presented with a proposed settlement that invades its excess layer and has been approved by the insured and primary insurer. See  Teleflex Medical Inc. v. National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, 2017 U.S.App.LEXIS 4996 (9th Cir. March 21, 2017). In Teleflex, the court applied the rule set forth in Diamond Heights Homeowners Ass’n v. Nat’l Am. Ins. Co. (1991) 227 Cal.App.3d 563 (“Diamond Heights”) stating that the excess insurer can: (1) approve the settlement; (2) reject the settlement and assume the defense of the insured; or (3) reject the settlement, decline the defense, and face a potential lawsuit by the insured seeking contribution.

In Teleflex, LMA became involved in a lawsuit with a competitor. LMA filed suit seeking recovery of damages for patent infringement and the competitor filed counterclaims for trade disparagement and false advertising. After several years of litigation, the parties agreed to settle their respective claims. As part of the settlement, LMA agreed to pay $4.75 million for the disparagement claims and LMA’s competitor agreed to pay $8.75 million for the patent claims. The settlement was contingent upon LMA obtaining approval and funding from its primary and excess insurers.

LMA’s primary carrier agreed to the settlement, but its excess insurer, National Union requested additional information which was provided by LMA, along with a demand that National Union could accept the settlement, reject the settlement and take over the defense, or reject the settlement, refuse to defend, and face a reimbursement claim. National Union ultimately rejected the settlement without offering to take over the defense.

LMA then brought suit against National Union for breach of contract and bad faith, where a jury awarded LMA damages for both. On appeal, National Union argued, among other things, that the district court erred in applying the rule articulated in Diamond Heights, asserting that it had effectively been overruled by Waller v. Truck Ins. Exch. (1995) 11 Cal.4th 1. National Union argued that under Waller, an insurer can only waive a policy provision through an intentional relinquishment of a known right. Accordingly, National Union asserted that LMA’s claims failed as matter of law because the “no voluntary payments” and “no action” clauses gave National Union the absolute right to reject the settlement. Disagreeing, the Ninth Circuit held that Waller did not mention Diamond Heights and reasoned that it simply reiterated general waiver principles that existed prior to and were not in conflict with Diamond Heights. In so holding, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that regardless of Diamond Heights use of the term “waiver” its rule is really about an insurer’s breach of its obligations under the policy and/or the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing – not the waiver or expansion of a policy provision addressed by the Waller court.

Of note, the Ninth Circuit also expressed skepticism regarding the application of the “genuine dispute doctrine” to third party claims and held that an insurer was not entitled to a specific jury instruction regarding that defense. The court also affirmed the district court’s ruling that an insured was not entitled to Brandt fees associated solely to the insured’s bad faith and related punitive damages claims.

Based upon this decision, excess insurers should be cognizant of the pitfalls of withholding consents to settlements and should ensure that they have been afforded a reasonable opportunity to analyze the reasonableness of the settlement and adequate time to consider whether to participate or undertake the defense of the insured.

District Court Holds That Pollution Exclusion Bars Coverage For Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

On March 9, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon issued its opinion and order in Colony Ins. Co. v. Victory Constr. LLC, et al., holding that carbon monoxide is a “pollutant” and, therefore, the pollution exclusion unambiguously bars coverage for harm caused by carbon monoxide. 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34368 (D. Or. Mar. 9, 2017).

In Victory, the underlying plaintiffs brought two lawsuits against Victory Construction (“Victory”) after carbon monoxide from a natural gas swimming pool heater filled their home, resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning. The plaintiffs alleged that Victory was negligent in the installation and ventilation of the heater and negligent in failing to warn of the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning associated with operating the heater in an insufficiently ventilated area.

The policy contained a “Hazardous Materials Exclusion,” barring coverage for “’[b]odily injury,’ … which would not have occurred in whole or in part but for the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of ‘hazardous materials’ at any time.” The policy’s definition of “hazardous materials” included “pollutants,” which was defined as “any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste.”

The parties brought cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether Colony Insurance (“Colony”) had a duty to defend and indemnify Victory in the personal injury lawsuits. In granting Colony’s motion and denying Victory’s motion, the Court found that “the only plausible interpretation of the Policy’s terms results in the conclusion that carbon monoxide is a pollutant.”

The Court recognized the wide array of conflicting judicial decisions throughout the country regarding the scope of the pollution exclusion, but found that most decisions fall into “one of two broad camps.” Quoting the Ninth Circuit, the Court noted that some courts apply the pollution exclusion literally because they find the terms to be clear and unambiguous, but other courts have limited the exclusion to situations involving “traditional environmental pollution.” Since the parties did not cite, and the Court did not find, any Oregon case law providing guidance on the scope of the pollution exclusion or its application to carbon monoxide, the Court attempted to predict whether the Oregon Supreme Court would conclude that carbon monoxide is an “irritant” or “contaminant,” and, thus, a “pollutant” under the policy.

The Court strictly adhered to the rules of policy interpretation as set forth in Hoffman Constr. Co. of Alaska v. Fred S. James & Co. of Oregon, 313 Or. 464 (1992). The intention of the parties is determined by the terms and conditions of the policy, beginning with the wording of the policy, applying policy definitions and otherwise presuming that words have their plain and ordinary meaning. If the court finds only one plausible interpretation of the disputed terms, that interpretation controls.

Since the policy did not define “irritant” or “contaminant,” the Court ascertained their plain and ordinary meanings, relying on dictionary definitions. Based on its plain meaning analysis, the Court concluded that carbon monoxide is either an “irritant” (substance that irritates or stimulates an organ) or “contaminant” (undesirable element whose introduction makes an environment unfit for use) and, therefore, is a “pollutant” under the policy.

The Court declined to address Victory’s contentions that the pollution exclusion should apply only to “traditional environmental pollution,” or that the Court should consider the reasonable expectations of the policyholder. “The Policy, as written, does not create any ambiguity that would lead this Court to believe that the Oregon Supreme Court would look outside the plain meaning of the Policy’s terms.”

This is the first reported decision to predict whether the Oregon Supreme Court would apply the absolute pollution exclusion outside the context of “traditional environmental pollution.” It remains to be seen whether Oregon state courts will follow the District Court’s lead.

Texas Supreme Court Interprets “Insured vs. Insured” Exclusion in Insurer’s Favor

The Texas Supreme Court recently reversed a divided Texas appellate court in resolving a dispute over the meaning of an “insured vs. insured” exclusion in a Directors and Officers policy issued by Great American Insurance Company. Great American Insurance Co. v. Primo, 60 Tex. Sup. J. 489 (2017).

The issue was whether an assignee of the insured’s rights under the policy “succeeded to the interest” of the insured for the purposes of triggering the exclusion. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Great American, holding that the insured vs. insured exclusion was applicable and that Great American was not required to pay another insured’s defense costs.

The case arose when Named Insured Briar Green, a condominium association, discovered what it believed to be financial improprieties on the part of former Briar Green director and treasurer, Robert Primo. Briar Green claimed Primo misappropriated funds, and it submitted a claim for the loss to its fidelity insurer, Travelers. Travelers paid the claim in exchange for an assignment of Briar Green’s rights and claims against Primo.

Travelers then sued Primo and a litigation explosion ensued. The opinion is somewhat unclear factually, but it appears that Primo may have ultimately been vindicated vis-à-vis the allegation of misappropriation of funds.

Primo, a former director and therefore an insured under the Great American policy, sought defense costs from Great American in the Travelers lawsuit. Because Travelers succeeded to Briar Green’s interest in the lawsuit, Great American denied coverage under the insured vs. insured exclusion, which excluded coverage for claims made by an insured against an insured and those made “by, or for the benefit of, or at the behest of [Briar Green] or . . . any person or entity which succeeds to the interest of [Briar Green].”

Primo sued Great American for breach of contract and bad faith, among other things. The trial court granted summary judgment to Great American, but the appellate court concluded an entity that “succeeds to the interest” of another in the insurance context was equivalent to being a “successor in interest” in the construction context, where a successor in interest is one who inherits the assignor’s liabilities as well as its rights. The court therefore held that the exclusion was inapplicable and that Great American must pay Primo’s defense costs.

The dissenting judge, Judge McCally, pointed out that equating “successor in interest” with an entity that “succeeds to the interest” re-writes the exclusion and narrows it considerably. She also noted that one of the purposes of the insured vs. insured exclusion is to prevent collusive lawsuits by insureds, and that if all an insured had to do to avoid the exclusion was to assign its rights under the policy to a third party, collusive lawsuits would actually be encouraged.

The Texas Supreme Court agreed with Judge McCally and reversed the appellate court. Utilizing the plain meaning rule of insurance policy interpretation, it refused to insert language into the policy that was not there and held that Travelers succeeded to Briar Green’s interest in the lawsuit, making the exclusion applicable.

It also analyzed the context surrounding the purpose of the exclusion, which is generally understood to be intended to preclude coverage for lawsuits between directors, officers, and the companies they serve. As happened in this case, such lawsuits can often become highly emotional and expensive, which is why the intent is usually to exclude them from coverage. The Court also agreed that the appellate court’s decision would have the effect of encouraging collusive lawsuits instead of discouraging them. Accordingly, Great American had no duty to pay for Primo’s defense costs based upon the insured v. insured exclusion.

No “Occurrence” Found Where Contractor Intentionally Performed Defective Work With The Hope It Would Not Cause Property Damage

The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, affirmed in part and reversed in part an order awarding an insurance company its $1 million policy limits used to settle a construction defect claim on behalf of an insured general contractor.

In Navigators Specialty Insurance Company v. Moorefield Construction, Inc., 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 1132 (December 27, 2016), a building owner, JSL Properties, LLC (“JSL”), and a developer, D.B.O. Development No. 28 (“DBO”), sued a general contractor, Moorefield Construction, Inc. (“Moorefield”), for floor leaks which occurred at a Best Buy electronics store between 2003 and 2009. In its second amended complaint, JSL claimed that Moorefield had defectively installed flooring on top of a concrete slab despite knowing that the existing slab contained excessive moisture levels. Navigators Specialty Insurance Company (“Navigators”) defended Moorefield in the action subject to a reservation of rights under a commercial general liability insurance policy. The litigation settled for $1,310,000 of which Navigators contributed its $1 million policy limits.

Navigators filed a declaratory relief lawsuit against Moorefield seeking a declaration that it had no duty to defend or indemnify the general contractor in the underlying construction defect action. Following a bench trial, the trial court issued a decision in favor of Navigators and against Moorefield. The trial court found that the flooring defects did not constitute an “occurrence” or accident under the policy. The trial court also held that Navigators had no duty to make any payments under the “supplementary payments” portion of the policy. Navigators received an award which required Moorefield to reimburse Navigators its $1 million policy limits contributed to settle claim.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that Navigators had no duty to indemnify Moorefield in the underlying action. The appellate court found evidence which established that Moorefield knew about the excessive moisture in the concrete slab and that it deliberately installed the flooring despite this known condition. Thus, the Court of Appeal held that no unexpected or unintended event constituted an “occurrence” to trigger an indemnity obligation under the policy. Moorefield and amicus curiae argued that construction defects could not be considered intentional conduct unless the contractor expected or intended its work to be defective and cause property damage. The Court of Appeal rejected that argument by stating, on the record before it, Moorfield knew about and intended to perform defective work with the hope it would not cause property damage. Even though Moorfield did not intend to cause property damage, the insured’s subjective belief was irrelevant.

However, the Court of Appeal reversed the portion of the trial court’s ruling which found that Navigators had no duty to make payments under the “supplementary payments” provision of the policy. The Court of Appeal determined that Navigators owed a duty to pay for attorneys’ fees and costs as part of the settlement because such amounts were recoverable under the construction contract and were awardable as taxed costs in litigation. Although no duty to indemnify existed, the appellate court found that Navigators was obligated to pay “supplementary payments” as part of its broader duty to defend.

The Court of Appeal also found that the trial court had improperly determined that the entire $1 million settlement payment was made for damages, rather than attorneys’ fees. The evidence indicated that JSL and DBO had only incurred $377,000 in damages related to the floor leaks. The appellate court further held that the trial court had committed prejudicial error in placing the burden of proof for this issue on Moorefield. Accordingly, the Court of Appeal remanded the case for a new trial seeking allocation of the settlement payment between damages and attorneys’ fees.

Click here for the opinion.

The opinion in Navigators Specialty Insurance Company v. Moorefield Construction, Inc., 2016 Cal. App. LEXIS 1132 (December 27, 2016), is not final. It may be withdrawn from publication, modified on rehearing, or review may be granted by the California Supreme Court. These events would render the opinion unavailable for use as legal authority in California state courts.