As coverage counsel, we witness firsthand the precarious positions policyholders are often left in due to the actions (or inactions) of their insurance carriers. A prime example of such a catch-22 scenario is when an insurer refuses to consent to a settlement offer while defending under a reservation of rights.
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.
A couple months into the widespread shift to remote work for many employees on a temporary basis, an increasing number of companies are considering or already implementing a permanent shift to remote work for most or all of their employees. Unsurprisingly, this shift is rapidly occurring in the technology industry. For example, Twitter’s CEO announced this week that its employees will be allowed to work from home permanently. But it is also occurring across other industries, including the insurance industry. For example, Nationwide is planning to permanently exit its building space, other than four main campuses, before the end of the year and is moving its other employees to permanent remote-working status.
In the uncertain times ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic, observers of the insurance law landscape can find footing in an old, familiar story: a single insured left deeply dissatisfied by her insurance provider’s coverage for an accident lawsuit against her. But in In re: Farmers Texas County Mutual Insurance Co., a novel question of settlement authority offers the chance to make new law.
When an insurer pursues a judicial determination on its duty to defend and agrees to defend its insured retroactively only five months after its insured initially requested a defense, has it breached its duty to defend? In most jurisdictions, the answer would be “yes.” In California, for example, an insurer must afford an immediate and entire defense in response to a tendered claim that is potentially covered under the Buss doctrine; belated, after-the-fact payments cannot cure that breach. But under the rule of a new Wisconsin decision, however, the same insurer would not have breached its duty to defend.
In January, we were among the first to post on the insurance implications of coronavirus. Since then, the epidemic has landed on our shores, dragged down the stock market, and become a political football. It has affected supply chains originating in China, with significant results for companies like Apple. And it threatens business continuity in the U.S. It is important to remember that the threat to the economic cycle does not originate from financial forces like a tightening of credit, but in nuts-and-bolts workings of the manufacturing and service economy, where both bottlenecks in supply and a pullback in demand threaten markets. Some of these losses are insurable. This post reviews recent coverage developments and notes practical coverage considerations that companies might overlook.
Must an insurer consider the possibility that putative class members (i.e., potential class members not named in the complaint) other than the proposed class representatives (i.e., the plaintiffs named in the complaint to represent the proposed class) have claims within the proscribed policy period in determining whether its duty to defend has been triggered? Many insurers answer “no,” arguing putative class members’ claims—many of which would otherwise be barred by the applicable statute of limitations—are too speculative to trigger coverage. But courts across the country have disagreed, repeatedly answering the question in the affirmative. Last year, the Northern District of Indiana was the latest court to decide this issue in favor of policyholders.
There has been a drumbeat of news reports about Wuhan, China, a city more populous than any in the United States, which is in effective lock-down because of the coronavirus. Foreign nationals are being evacuated, travel has been restricted, and business is at a standstill. At a time like this, preserving public health is the highest priority. But businesses, both local and global, are also affected by shut-down orders, disruptions to their supply chains, mass sick days, and loss of business. Many, especially providers of hospitality or health care, may face elevated liability risks for exposing others to a contagion. It is important to remember that insurance may be available to meet these risks.
In recent years, Wisconsin generally has been a pro-policyholder jurisdiction when it comes to long-tail environmental coverage cases. That trend continues with a decision by a Wisconsin appellate court in a case involving coverage for environmental cleanup costs at a former manufactured gas plant site. In Superior Water, Light & Power Co. v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London Subscribing to Policy Nos. K22700, CX2900, and CX2901, the court reversed a lower court and held that there may be coverage under historic policies if there was damage to groundwater during the policy period, notwithstanding that site operations had ceased years earlier. This is an important decision, as the same historic London Market “occurrence” definition was used in many policies issued to other policyholders by London Market Insurers during the same time frame. (A description of some of the unique aspects of the London insurance market can be found here.)
Hub City Enterprises Inc. and Wall St. Enterprises of Orlando Inc. ran an event called “Rum Fest 2017” in Orlando, Fla. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? But one of the partygoers, who apparently paid to attend the festival, was not amused. In the middle of the party, Robert Hunt saw an oversized beach ball barreling towards his head. When he reached out to deflect the projectile, he ended up suffering injuries to the ligaments in his arms. Mr. Hunt sued Hub City and Wall St. Enterprises, who tendered the claim to Princeton Excess and Surplus Lines Insurance Co., their liability carrier, for a defense. Princeton initially assumed defense of the claim, but it soon repaired to federal court seeking a declaration that it had no duty to defend the suit. In Princeton Excess & Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. Hub City Enterprises, Inc., the Southern District of Florida ruled in favor of the insurer.