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Insurer Side Beware: Litigation Privilege for Pre-Suit Communications Extends Only To The Party Contemplating Filing Of Litigation

Posted on: January 14th, 2019

By: Tim Kenna & Kristin Ingulsrud

Strawn v. Morris, Polich & Purdy—filed Jan. 4, 2019, Court of Appeal of California, First District, Division Two 2019 Cal.App. LEXIS 9*—makes explicit that the application of the litigation privilege to pre-suit claims communications where the policyholder disputes its contemplation of litigation only applies to policy side interests if the insurer is contemplating litigation in good faith.

The litigation privilege makes inadmissible any communication made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings. California Civil Code § 47(b)(2). This privilege extends to pre-litigation statements relating to litigation contemplated in good faith and under serious consideration. Action Apartment Assn., Inc v. City of Santa Monica (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1232, 1251.

In Strawn, the insureds brought a cause of action for invasion of privacy against State Farm’s counsel based on the alleged wrongful transmittal of the insureds’ tax returns to State Farm in connection with a coverage investigation involving potential arson. The MPP argued that the transmittal was protected by the litigation privilege because it was in anticipation of the civil action the insureds “would surely and did in fact” file. The trial court agreed and sustained the demurrer based on the litigation privilege.

The California Court of Appeal reversed. In order for the insurer to apply the privilege to its own communications, the Court held, the insurer would need to establish that it was contemplating litigation in good faith when it received the tax returns.

There have been cases in which the courts have held that routine claims communications relate to the business of insurance and are not protected speech. See, e.g. People ex. Rel. Fire Insurance Exchange v. Anapol (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 809. Other cases have attempted to discern whether the communications themselves establish a good faith consideration of litigation. Blanchard v. DIRECTV, Inc. (2004) 123 Cal.App.4th 903.  Strawn seems to go one step further in requiring the movant to establish that IT was contemplating the filing of litigation in good faith. Strawn appears to hold that at least in a case of disputed intent of the policyholder, the insurer side’s good faith subjective or objectively reasonable belief that the policyholder was contemplating litigation is irrelevant. Thus, where claimants’ counsel threatens suit, there was no protection to the insurer side no matter how unlikely settlement.

Strawn’s effects may be felt by litigants who attempt to utilize the litigation privilege in furtherance of dispositive pre-trial motions, including anti-SLAPP and motions for summary judgment.  First, Strawn emphasizes that good faith is a question of fact that must be determined before the litigation privilege can apply. Second, it severely limits the application of the litigation privilege in favor of any party who is responding to a perceived threat of litigation, even if that perceived threat is objectively reasonable.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Tim Kenna at [email protected] or Kristin Ingulsrud at [email protected].

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