Even if an insurance company attempts to deny its coverage obligations, there are still processes that a policyholder can explore, short of litigation, that could resolve a coverage dispute. Appraisal is an alternative dispute resolution process designed to efficiently resolve measurement disputes between policyholders and their insurers. Appraisal can streamline a coverage lawsuit and narrow the disputed issues—it may even limit the need for expert reports and depositions. There is a strong public policy favoring appraisals throughout the country, not only because they may provide a less expensive alternative to litigation, but also because appraisal rulings are enforceable and strictly applied in court. Some states even require that form standard insurance policies include an appraisal clause requiring either party to, on demand, submit a dispute over the amount of a loss to an appraisal panel. (See Virginia Code § 38.2-2105; Cal. Ins. Code § 2071; McKinney’s Ins. Law§ 3404; N.J.S.A. § 17:36-5.20.) That panel typically consists of two appraisers, who select an umpire.
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.
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.
Disputed insurance claims often end in confidential settlements, as do many insured liabilities. But does it matter if lawyers sign a settlement agreement approving “as to form and content”? Last month, the California Supreme Court answered that question with a resounding “Yes!” In Monster Energy Company v. Schechter, a unanimous California Supreme Court ruled that a lawyer signing such an agreement may be bound by that agreement’s confidentiality provisions.
As coverage counsel, we see the situation arise time and again: facing down substantial potential liability in a pending lawsuit, a policyholder engages in good-faith settlement discussions with the plaintiff. After animated negotiations between the parties, the plaintiff finally makes a reasonable offer, only for the policyholder’s insurance carrier to throw up a roadblock by refusing to fund or consent to the settlement. But policyholders need not always resign themselves to continuing costly and time-consuming litigation—a “covenant not to execute” may be the switch to put the settlement back on track.
In most cases, a reasonable settlement produces a better result than litigation. A good settlement should provide more of what you need at a lower cost with less interruption of your core business.
Abraham Lincoln is credited with the following advice: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser—in fees, and expenses, and waste of time. As a peace-maker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”
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.”
Florida is a hotbed for insurance claims, from run-of-the mill auto accidents to pervasive construction defects to post-hurricane business interruptions, and everything in between. Insurance companies are likely to deny many of those claims—whether or not that denial is proper—hoping that their policyholders will be unwilling to spend the time and money required to demonstrate coverage. But with its new decision in Johnson v. Omega Insurance Company, the Florida Supreme Court reminds policyholders that they have a powerful tool against improper denials of coverage—the awarding of attorney’s fees. Continue Reading ›
In what resembles a kabuki dance of sorts, insurers often fire off reservation of rights letters as an automatic response to any and all claims-related correspondence. A policyholder sends notice of circumstances that could give rise to a claim? Reservation of rights. A policyholder requests defense coverage? Reservation of rights. A policyholder requests consent to settle with the underlying claimant? Reservation of rights.
Ever since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided Zeig v. Mass. Bonding & Insurance Co. in 1928, it has been well-settled that a policyholder can compromise a disputed claim with its insurer for less than the full limits of the policy without putting its rights to excess coverage at risk. In a seminal opinion by Judge Augustus Hand, the Zeig court said, “We can see no reason for a construction so burdensome to the insured,” to require collection of the full amount of primary polices in order to exhaust them. The Zeig court emphasized that a compromise payment by the primary insurer discharges the limits of the primary coverage, while the excess insurer is unharmed, since it must pay only the amount exceeding the attachment point of its policy.