As the cliché saying goes: “When it comes to love, never settle for less than you deserve.” But when it comes to insurance coverage, sometimes settling for less than the full limits of a policy is an effective compromise that saves time and avoids costly litigation. However, if losses may reach excess policies, then policyholders should take a second look before signing on the dotted line. Excess liability policies often include a limitation requiring the “exhaustion” of underlying policy limits before excess coverage is triggered. If the policyholder settles with an underlying insurer for less than the underlying policy limits, excess insurers may dispute whether the settlement qualifies as “exhaustion.”
Barely removed from the Super Bowl, football fans have begun their long hibernation in anticipation of next season. But the Patriots’ incredible comeback reminds me that it coincided with the tenth anniversary of one of the great NFL coach rants, courtesy of the late Dennis Green of the Arizona Cardinals. Coach Green was interviewed after his team blew a 20-0 halftime lead to my beloved Chicago Bears. Using some other choice words, Green said about the comeback kids: “the Bears are who we thought they were!”
So what does this have to do with insurance? Well, unlike Coach Green, not all policyholders can say that their insurance policies are exactly what they thought they were. A recent Fifth Circuit case, Richard v. Dolphin Drilling Ltd., is such a case. There, the policy exclusions were so broadly construed that 99 percent of the insured’s operations were excluded from coverage.
In 1173, builders broke ground in Pisa, Italy, on the Torre de Pisa (that is, the Tower of Pisa). At over 183 feet, it was to be a grand statement—remember, this was 1173, not 2016.
But the story is not all roses. The tower began immediately to tilt—by the time they started laying just the second floor of the tower, it was leaning. Thus, it earned the name we all now know (and love?), “Torre pendent di Pisa”—the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Wikipedia explains, “[t]he tower’s tilt began during construction, caused by an inadequate foundation on ground too soft on one side to properly support the structure’s weight. The tilt increased in the decades before the structure was completed, and gradually increased until the structure was stabilized (and the tilt partially corrected) by efforts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.” The tower now leans over 12 feet from the vertical axis.
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.