In a March 13, 2019 article appearing in Law360, Hunton Insurance team head, Walter Andrews, explains the adverse impact of a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that attempts to clarify the rules governing settlement of insured liability claims under Georgia law.  As Walter explains, however, the decision stands to hinder settlements and potentially subject innocent insureds to staggering liability beyond that covered by their insurance.  In First Acceptance Ins. Co. of Georgia, Inc. v. Hughes, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that policyholders must make a “valid offer” – that is, one that contains definite time limits and other terms – before an insurance company is required to settle.  As Walter told Law360, the court took “an overly narrow approach” that is “disturbing and is likely to act as a deterrent to settlements in the future.” He goes on to explain that insurance companies will actually have less incentive to settle, “which means that fewer cases will settle and cases will linger longer in court, which is not in the interests of either the injured parties or the insured defendants.”

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The Georgia Supreme Court ruled this week that First Acceptance Insurance Co. need not pay a $5.3 million excess judgment against its insured, Ronald Jackson.  First Acceptance Ins. Co. of Georgia, Inc. v. Hughes, No. S18G0517, 2019 WL 1103831 (Ga. Mar. 11, 2019), even though Jackson’s insurer could have settled the claim for Jackson’s $50,000 policy limits.

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As the new year gets under way, cases that will shape the insurance landscape in 2019 continue to proceed.  Among them are First Acceptance Ins. Co. v. Hughes, in which the Georgia Supreme Court will address the prerequisites for a policyholder to sue its insurance carrier for bad faith based on the insurer’s failure to settle the underlying dispute for an amount within the available policy limits.  Hunton Andrews Kurth’s insurance practice head, Walter Andrews, was asked by Insurance Law360 to comment on the significance of that case.  As Andrews explained, the insurer’s position is inconsistent with Georgia law.  “Georgia law does not require some particular form of settlement offer — or even an offer at all — to create an insurer’s duty to settle claims against their insureds.” Rather, as Andrews explained, “that duty arises when the insurer knows or reasonably should know that not settling will create an ‘unreasonable risk’ of the insured suffering a judgment in excess of his or her policy limits, regardless of whether a third-party claimant has first presented a settlement offer. Most often, that should be a jury question and not something that is susceptible to summary judgment.”

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The California Court of Appeal has affirmed that Lloyd’s of London and other insurers cannot escape coverage for $132.5 million in settlements arising from the 2008 Chatsworth train crash, in which 25 individuals were killed and more than 130 injured. In Those Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London v. Connex Railroad LLC, No. B276373, 2018 WL 1871278 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. Apr. 19, 2018), the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the Los Angeles Superior Court’s ruling, discussed in our November 9, 2015 blog post, that the insurers were obligated to indemnify Connex Railroad for the settlements.

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In a recent insurer’s failure-to-settle case, Hughes v. First Acceptance Ins. Co. of Ga., the Georgia Court of Appeals reaffirmed that there is no hard-set rule conducive to summary judgment; rather, the court ruled that a jury should determine whether the insurer’s actions had been “reasonably prudent.”  Plaintiff Robert Jackson allegedly caused a five-vehicle collision that resulted in his death and the serious injuries of others, including Julie An and her minor child, Jina Hong.  An and Hong, through their counsel, communicated with Jackson’s insurance company, First Acceptance, stating that they were “interested” in settling their claims within Jackson’s policy limit of $25,000.  Counsel also requested that the insurer send him policy information within 30 days.  An later claimed that this communication represented an offer of settlement, when, 41 days later, they sent First Acceptance a letter withdrawing their “offer” and stating their intent to file suit due to the insurer’s failure to respond.  An and Hong then filed suit and were ultimately awarded $5,334,220 in damages.  First Acceptance paid $25,000 towards the award, leaving Jackson’s estate exposed to over five million dollars in damages.

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The Ninth Circuit in Teleflex Medical Incorporated v. National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh PA, No. 14-56366 (9th Cir. Mar. 21, 2017) affirmed a jury verdict finding that AIG must pay $3.75 million in damages plus attorneys’ fees to cover LMA North America, Inc.’s (“LMA’s”) settlement with its competitor over allegedly disparaging advertisements that characterized a competitor’s products as unsafe.

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