The widespread denial of coverage under first-party property insurance policies for business interruption losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has been extensively reported, but so far less attention has been paid to related third-party claims and attendant coverage issues arising under liability insurance policies. When ticketed attendees sued the organizer of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music and film festival, SXSW LLC, for refunds after the 2020 annual event was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company’s liability insurer, Federal Insurance Company, refused to make good its duty to defend. SXSW has now sued Federal in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas seeking a declaration that Federal owes a duty to defend SXSW against the underlying putative class action, providing insight on COVID-19-related liability coverage issues.
Last month, we discussed a decision by the Northern District of Illinois finding an amount labeled “restitution” in a settlement between a pharmaceutical company and the DOJ was insurable loss under a D&O policy. Shortly after that post, the New York Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion, continuing the trend of looking beyond the labels used for the payments in the underlying settlement agreement. In rejecting the insurers’ argument, the court evaluated the purpose of the payments and the nature of how they were derived to find the payments at issue were insurable under a Professional Liability policy, despite being called “disgorgement.”
In previous posts, we have emphasized the continued judicial trend rejecting insurer arguments that losses purportedly sounding in restitution or disgorgement are “uninsurable” under D&O policies. Despite that trend, insurers continue to invoke “uninsurability” under state law or vague notions of public policy, even where such a doctrine has not been recognized in the relevant jurisdiction.
A feature of most corporate liability insurance programs is the tower system of coverage: a primary policy with several overlying excess policies stacked atop one another collectively providing coverage up to a desired (or available) limit of liability. Depending on the size and liability exposures of a policyholder, a tower can consist of dozens of policies providing limits totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Adding to this complexity, excess policies often share layers of coverage in quota share arrangements, sometimes subscribing to the same policy but more often issuing separate policies for a stated percentage of the quota share whole. To avoid as much as possible an impenetrable web of conflicting coverage terms, excess policies often “follow form” to the underlying coverage (usually to the primary policy) providing the insurer certainty and providing the policyholder a consistent tower of coverage. It is not always possible, though, to obtain clarity and certainty in tower placements. Insurance companies issuing excess coverage may not wish to agree to all the terms included in the underlying policies, and so may offer additional or differing terms, creating inconsistencies in an otherwise monolithic tower. For example, a primary insurer may refuse to cover punitive damages whereas an excess insurer may agree to do so, or vice versa.
In the finance world, Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) are proliferating like Dutch tulips. This year alone, they’ve exploded in popularity, with multitudes of celebrities, politicians, and influencers sponsoring SPACs of their own. The list includes the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Shaquille O’Neal, Alex Rodriguez and Tony Hawk. Even amidst new concerns from the SEC, which reportedly opened an inquiry into the investment risks of SPACs and issued a bulletin warning prospective investors to exercise caution investing in celebrity-sponsored SPACs, SPACs have raised staggering amounts of capital.
The Biden administration has hit the ground running with executive orders, regulatory and legislative priorities, and cabinet-level and other top posts being announced on a daily basis. Our public policy colleagues have been closely tracking many of the policy priorities of the new administration and highlighting important regulatory and legislative developments that businesses can expect coming down the pipeline.
If 2020 was the year of the pandemic, 2021 appears to be shaping up to be the year of “returning to normal.” So far, most coverage disputes related to COVID-19 have been reactions to direct losses caused by the virus and related measures (i.e., relating to business interruption or event cancellation). In the upcoming months and years, however, many businesses will have to make proactive decisions on how to return to work. It is important for businesses to understand how those decisions may impact a variety of potential insurance coverages, including possible D&O coverage, as this post will discuss. Additionally, now that insurance companies have a better understanding of the types of risks involved with COVID-19, coverage terms and exclusions in policies issued after the pandemic may become drastically different.
Late in June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Liu v. SEC, a closely watched case in which the Court in an 8-1 opinion curtailed the authority of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to seek disgorgement of profits from private parties in judicial enforcement proceedings. The Court articulated restrictions on the SEC’s disgorgement power, including (1) limiting disgorgement amounts to the net profits from wrongdoing, (2) limiting the SEC’s ability to seek disgorgement of profits on a joint and several basis, and (3) directing the SEC to return disgorged monies to aggrieved investors rather than depositing them in the U.S. Treasury. Although it does not address insurance issues directly, the Court’s analysis of the disgorgement remedy is bound to revive discussion of the issue of insurability of losses suffered as a result of settlements or judgments characterized as disgorgement.
Times of crisis can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, times like this can also be an opportunity for exploitation of inexpensive, and potentially forced, labor. As America reopens its economy, it is likely that we will begin to see a surge in many industries. The resulting demand for labor, coupled with unprecedented unemployment and related desperation not only in America, but worldwide, could lead unscrupulous individuals and companies to exploit American and foreign workers. We saw this with previous disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, where foreign laborers were exploited in the rebuilding process with false promises of citizenship. Now, to be clear, exploitation occurs even during times of economic prosperity; however, it can be even more pronounced and egregious when people must deal with uncertainties and hardships never before experienced in their lifetimes.