Ever since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided Zeig v. Mass. Bonding & Insurance Co. in 1928, it has been well-settled that a policyholder can compromise a disputed claim with its insurer for less than the full limits of the policy without putting its rights to excess coverage at risk. In a seminal opinion by Judge Augustus Hand, the Zeig court said, “We can see no reason for a construction so burdensome to the insured,” to require collection of the full amount of primary polices in order to exhaust them. The Zeig court emphasized that a compromise payment by the primary insurer discharges the limits of the primary coverage, while the excess insurer is unharmed, since it must pay only the amount exceeding the attachment point of its policy.
Over time, New York’s courts have erected multiple barriers to policyholders seeking to recover insurance for long-tail, progressive injury claims—such as environmental or asbestos liabilities—that can implicate multiple policies over multiple policy terms. Now, in a New York minute, just weeks after hearing oral argument, the Empire State’s highest court leveled the playing field by endorsing the “all sums” and “vertical exhaustion” approach to allocation advocated by a policyholder, at least as to policies containing “non-cumulation” and “prior insurance” provisions.
In In re Viking Pump, Inc., New York’s Court of Appeals did not overrule its 2002 decision in Consolidated Edison Co. of New York v. Allstate Ins. Co., which had applied pro rata allocation where the non-cumulation clause argument was not raised, but the court made clear that pro rata allocation is not the default rule in New York. Rather, the specific wording of the triggered policies will control, and can require allocation on an all-sums basis. This is a huge win for policyholders with New York liabilities and a further endorsement, by a prestigious court, of the “all sums” approach to allocation.
If your company faces liability arising out of exposure to asbestos-containing products or materials, it may pay—a lot—to take a second look at your liability insurance policies containing asbestos exclusions. They may not exclude your loss after all. On March 3, 2015, a Pennsylvania federal district court ruled in General Refractories Co. v. First State Insurance Co. that an asbestos exclusion in two general liability policies is ambiguous, and does not bar coverage for a multitude of asbestos-related lawsuits against a manufacturer and supplier of asbestos-containing products. Continue reading →