Amazon. Bank of America. Citigroup. Dick’s Sporting Goods. JP Morgan. Kroger. Meta. Microsoft. Procter & Gamble. Target. Walt Disney Company. These are just a few of what is a growing list of companies that have offered to cover costs for employees who may now need to travel out of state to receive abortion care in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. But companies that are stepping up to further protect their employees’ reproductive rights are choosing to do so in the face of potential public backlash and uncertain legal risks.
An oft-repeated maxim in self-help literature is: “Do not let your circumstances define who you are.” In a similar vein, policyholders should proactively manage situations in which known circumstances may potentially give rise to an eventual claim.
Suppose a company perceives the potential risk of litigation or a government investigation. This may not necessarily be the result of any known wrongful conduct—such risk may just be inherent in the company’s business model or within the company’s industry. When the company’s D&O insurance policy (or employment liability or professional liability, as the case may be) is on the verge of expiring, the company may be faced with the decision whether to report such circumstances to the insurer under the policy’s “notice of circumstances” (NOC) provision, which permits the policyholder to provide notice of facts or events that may give rise to claims in the future. If such notice is given within the specified time, the insurer will treat any subsequent claims arising out of the noticed circumstances as claims first made within the policy period, even if the claims are brought much later.
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.