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.
Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit awarded Pillsbury client Northrop Grumman a significant appellate victory, reversing an adverse decision from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on a question of first impression within the circuit. The court’s decision in AXIS Reinsurance Company v. Northrop Grumman Corporation not only restores Northrop Grumman’s access to millions of dollars in insurance coverage; it provides stability and predictability in insurance law by rejecting an excess insurer’s assertion of wide-ranging authority to “second-guess” coverage decisions made by underlying insurers.
A federal court in Michigan just breathed new life into a long-running legal saga—while at the same time issuing a warning shot across the bows of insurers—by declining to dismiss an insured’s bad faith cause of action alleging its insurer wrongly decided to pay one claim before another, to the insured’s detriment.
As the old adage goes, “the devil is in the details.” Insurance policy terms do not always apply in ways that policyholders expect. For this reason, it is imperative to understand how coverages, definitions and exclusions work together to avoid surprise gaps in coverage. The Fifth Circuit found a coverage gap in a recent case holding that settlement contributions from co-defendants met an excess policy’s broad definition of “Other Insurance,” preventing the policyholder from securing coverage for a significant part of its losses.
Most states apply the rule of contra proferentem, resolving ambiguous policy language against the insurer and in favor of coverage. Insurers, after all, have control over their policy language and it is their responsibility to ensure the language is clear. Some states require the use of extrinsic evidence before resolving ambiguous language in favor of the policyholder, and many consider the reasonable expectations of the parties in interpreting policy language.
Arizona courts have applied a variant of contra proferentem. They first view the language from the standpoint of the average layman untrained in insurance. If the language can be interpreted in more than one way, courts will attempt to determine its meaning by examining (1) the language of the provision, (2) the purpose of the transaction, and (3) public policy considerations. If after that analysis the provision language is still ambiguous, the courts will construe the language in favor of coverage.
What happens when you have a claim arising from circumstances that unfolded over many policy years—like environmental property damage or asbestos bodily injury claims? Which policies are triggered? How much coverage does each policy provide? Unsurprisingly, insurers and policyholders disagree on the answers. And courts across the country have been grappling with the issue for decades.
Some courts apply the “all sums” approach, which allows a policyholder to recover in full—subject to policy limits—from any insurer whose policy has been “triggered.” Other courts apply the “pro rata” approach, under which each triggered insurer must pay only a portion of the loss allocated to its policy periods. This is a closely watched issue among the insurance bar as it can dramatically impact the amount of a recovery depending on the contours of the policyholder’s insurance program.
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.