There was nothing ambiguous in former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s ruling in AIG Property Cas. Co. v. Cosby, No. 17-1505 (1st Cir. June 7, 2018), where, sitting by designation, Justice Souter ruled that AIG Property and Casualty Co. (“AIG”) must defend Bill Cosby in suits brought by eight women alleging that Cosby defamed them after they accused him of sexual misconduct. Cosby held two insurance policies issued by AIG: a homeowner’s policy and a personal excess liability policy (the “umbrella policy””). Under each policy, AIG has a duty to “pay damages [Cosby] is legally obligated to pay [due to] personal injury or property damage caused by an occurrence covered by this policy anywhere in the world . . . .” Both policies define “personal injury” to include “[d]efamation” and require AIG to pay the cost of defending against suits seeking covered damages. Both policies also contain so-called “sexual misconduct” exclusions. The homeowner’s policy’s exclusion bars coverage for liability or defense costs “arising out of any actual, alleged[,] or threatened . . . [s]exual molestation, misconduct or harassment[,] . . . or . . . [s]exual, physical or mental abuse.” The umbrella policy contained similar wording. However, that policy also contained another “sexual misconduct” exclusion under the “Limited Charitable Board Directors and Trustees Liability” coverage part. That exclusion applied more broadly to claims for damages “[a]rising out of, or in any way involving, directly or indirectly, any alleged sexual misconduct” (emphasis added).
Two recent decisions addressing allocation of long-tail liabilities demonstrate that resolution of the issue under New York law depends upon the policy language at issue. Judge-made rules on “equity” and “fairness” do not control. As the New York Court of Appeals held on March 27, 2018, in Keyspan Gas East Corp. v. Munich Reinsurance America, Inc., 2018 WL 1472635 (2018), under New York law, “the method of allocation is covered for most by the particular language of the relevant insurance policy.” Both Keyspan and the April 2, 2018 decision in Hopeman Brothers, Inc. v. Continental Casualty Co., No. 16-cv-00187 (E.D. Va. Apr. 2, 2018), by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, illustrate the importance of reviewing insurance policies – both before purchase, to ensure that they contain optimal language for coverage; and after claims arise, to ensure that the policyholder receives the benefit of insurance coverage under “legacy” and all other potentially applicable policies.
A federal court in New Jersey recently held that the construction of an ambiguous policy term is not a matter suitable for judgment on the pleadings, thus denying AIG from avoiding coverage for a $67 million antitrust settlement. Rather, the only way to establish the meaning of an ambiguous term, the court explained, is to ascertain the intent of the parties, which requires “meaningful discovery.”
The Eleventh Circuit, in Mid-Continent Casualty Co. v. Adams Homes of Northwest Florida, Inc., No. 17-12660, 2018 WL 834896, at * 3-4 (11th Cir. Feb. 13, 2018) (per curiam), recently held under Florida law that a homebuilder’s alleged failure to implement a proper drainage system that allowed for neighborhood flooding triggered a general liability insurer’s duty to defend because the allegations involved a potentially covered loss of use of covered property.
A recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Paul Byron of the Middle District of Florida has made clear that the actual words used in an insurance contract matter. The court, in Mt. Hawley Insurance Co. v. Tactic Security Enforcement, Inc., No. 6:16-cv-01425 (M.D. FL. 2018), denied an insurance company’s motion for summary judgment attempting to rely on an exclusion to deny coverage to its policyholder. The policyholder, Que Rico La Casa Del Mofongo, operated a restaurant establishment in Orlando, Florida, and sought coverage for two negligence lawsuits filed against it for allegedly failing to prevent a shooting and another violent incident on its premises.
Hunton & Williams insurance partner, Syed Ahmad, was quoted twice in Law360 concerning significant insurance cases to watch in 2018. On January 1, 2018, Ahmad noted that Pitzer College v. Indian Harbor Insurance Co., pending in the California Supreme Court, “can be significant for coverage disputes in California because the California rule could override the law of the state that would apply otherwise, even if the parties agreed to another state’s law governing,” On January 9, 2018, Ahmad was again asked by Law360 to comment on key D&O cases that will likely be decided in 2018. Ahmad noted that in Patriarch Partners LLC v. Axis Insurance Co., pending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Patriarch’s appeal presents an unusual situation in which a policyholder is arguing that various developments in an ongoing SEC investigation don’t constitute a claim under a D&O policy, in order to avoid the application of an exclusion. In other circumstances, it may be favorable for a policyholder to assert that a preliminary step in an SEC probe is a claim, so as to maximize coverage. According to Ahmad, the district court didn’t fully address how, in the context of the specific policy language at issue, a non-public order by the SEC could qualify as a claim. “As Patriarch argues, ‘until an agency makes a demand upon the target under legal compulsion, there may be no way for a policyholder to even know that it is being investigated, that an order authorizing investigation has been issued against it or what the order of investigation says,'” Ahmad said, quoting from Patriarch’s appellate brief.
In an article appearing in Law360, Hunton & Williams insurance partner, Michael Levine, weighs in on Office Depot’s pending Ninth Circuit appeal of a district court ruling that Office Depot is not entitled to coverage for a California False Claims Act case alleging that the office supply chain overbilled public agency customers. The decision is premised on a finding that California Insurance Code Section 533 — which precludes coverage for a policyholder’s willful acts — applies to the entire underlying CFCA action, including allegations of reckless and negligent conduct. But as Levine points out, the district court made the “fundamental error” of presuming that Office Depot had actually been found liable for a violation of the CFCA, when it had not. Section 533 requires “more than the mere allegation” of a willful act by a policyholder, he said. Levine goes on to explain the danger in affirming such an erroneous ruling is that “it creates a dilemma for policyholders, because even the mere allegation of a CFCA violation would be barred from coverage [even though n]othing in Section 533 suggests it was intended to have such a broad preclusive effect.”
Corporate policyholders should carefully consider insurance coverage implications when structuring mergers, acquisitions, or other transactions that may impact available insurance assets. A New Jersey federal court recently granted summary judgment for a surviving bank asserting coverage rights under a D&O policy issued to an entity that dissolved in a statutory merger, based in part on the wording of the parties’ merger agreement structuring the transaction in accordance with the New Jersey Business Corporation Act (“NJBCA”).
A Georgia district court recently denied an insurer’s attempt to recoup defense costs, holding that even where the court previously determined that coverage was barred under the policy’s pollution exclusion, the insurer could not “rewrite the record” or clarify its “defective” reservation of rights letters to show that it fairly informed the policyholder of its coverage position, which is a prerequisite to recoupment of defense costs.
In recent months, insurers have increasingly used New York rescission law as a means to not only deny coverage for specific claims, but also to void any protection an insurance policy may provide for other losses down the road. For example, H.J. Heinz Company recently found itself without coverage for a $30 million recall after its insurer rescinded its policy based on a misrepresentation in Heinz’s insurance application. In an article for FC&S Legal, Syed S. Ahmad, Tae Andrews, and Kelly Oeltjenbruns analyze recent rescission claims and illustrate the dangerous exposure—and high price tag—that can accompany misstatements or non-disclosures, even unintentional ones, when procuring coverage. The article, available here, tackles the issue of minimizing risks associated with recession claims and shares helpful tips for policyholders.