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.
Insurers have recently argued that environmental property damage claims for “closure” costs arising out of historic pollution are not covered, because the claimed damages are just “ordinary costs of doing business.” Policyholders should strongly resist denials based on this argument, which is unsupported custom and practice in the insurance industry and contradicts the terms of standard-form third-party liability policies, applicable environmental laws, and insurance law in nearly all jurisdictions.
The Supreme Court of Texas delivered good news to policyholders insured under a “Joint Venture Provision” endorsement commonly used in the oil and gas industry. In Anadarko Petroleum Corp. v. Houston Casualty Co.—a case arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster—the court held that insurers assumed the obligation to reimburse the full amount of a joint venture partner’s defense costs, rejecting the insurers’ argument that their obligation was reduced by the “scaling” language of a Joint Venture Provision. As a result, the court held the insurers liable to Anadarko for over $100 million in defense costs, not just the $37.5 million they had already paid.
Latin America continues to be a prime market for business development and expansion; however, insurance coverage for businesses based in or doing business in the region sometimes lags behind what is necessary to sufficiently protect them against risk. Evaluating coverage for companies operating in Latin America requires a specialized skill set—for example, a key consideration when evaluating claims and reviewing coverage programs is that multiple languages are at play for programs that span the Americas. Master policies for companies based in the United States and global policies for multinational corporations will generally be written in English. Companies with operations or offices in Latin America will likely also have in place local policies written in Spanish and/or Portuguese.
A recent decision in the Middle District of Florida, Southern Owners Insurance Company v. Gallo Building Services, Inc., reminds us of the high bar an insurer must clear to avoid its duty to defend an insured—even when that insured is out of business.