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FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘insurance’

Limitations On Directors & Officers’ Liability Coverage

Posted on: December 20th, 2018

By: David Molinari

Directors and Officers (D&O) Liability Insurance is insurance coverage intended to protect individuals from personal losses if they are sued as a result of serving as a Director or Officer of a business or other type of organization. Directors and Officers policies may also cover legal fees and other costs the organization may incur as a result of such a lawsuit. Directors and Officers Liability Insurance applies to anyone who serves as a Director or Officer of a for-profit business or a non-profit organization. D&O policies can take on different forms depending on the nature of the organization and the risk organizations face. D&O Insurance is a specialized form of coverage for claims based on acts committed in corporate capacities; and the corporation obligation to indemnify its Directors and Officers for such claims.

The availability of such insurance is an important factor recruiting or attracting persons to serve as Directors and Officers of corporations. So important that such insurance is provided by statute.  In California, California Corporation Code Section 317 allows for a corporation to purchase and maintain insurance on behalf of any agent of the corporation against any liability asserted against or incurred by the agent in their official capacity; or arising out of the agent’s status, whether or not the corporation would have the power to indemnify the agent against the liability. However, the existence of Directors and Officers coverage has limits. California Corporation Code permits a corporation to purchase Directors and Officers Insurance, it does not require an entity to do so.  The Corporation Code does not authorize an insurance company to cover a risk that it could not or does not lawfully cover. A Directors and Officers Liability policy is not an incentive for leaders of a business to increase risky behavior or an incentive to adopt aggressive negotiation strategies, policies or interpretations or their contracts and arrangements in the belief that if their actions are rejected by the courts, the insurance company will pick up the tab.

One distinction where coverage is unavailable; yet individuals in positions of management, decision and control mistakenly believe they are covered, is in situations where the loss arises from nothing more than a breach of contract the corporation entered. Directors and Officers liability policies are seen as safety nets affording management the ability to shift risk for unsuccessful business decisions and deals to an insurance carrier.

Directors and Officers policies typically exclude coverage for breach of contract. The policies generally limit coverage to liability that arises from errors committed in the officers’ or directors’ official capacity.  This limitation effectively excludes contract liability because an officer acting in their official capacity cannot be held individually liable for breach of a corporate contract. The limitation protects against making an insurer an unwitting investor in a corporation’s dealings.

Often directors or officers seek coverage of claims by focusing upon broad language in policies that define a “loss” but ignore the conditions on how that loss arose. Under Directors and Officers policies, the issue is whether the loss resulted from a wrongful act. Policies only cover losses resulting from wrongful acts, whether actually committed or merely alleged. Suffering a loss does not include judicial enforcement of contractual obligations. An officer or directors’ decision to refuse to make payments under a contract because of a dispute with the contracting party does not give rise to a loss caused by a wrongful act. Even though an officer or director’s actions in precipitating the breach may have been careless, such a loss is not covered by a policy. If that were the case, any default arising from a mistaken assumption regarding a company’s contractual liability could transform a contract debt into an insured event. Refusing to pay a debt, even in reliance upon erroneous advice of counsel, would convert a contractual obligation into damage arising from a negligent omission. That result would make the insurance company a defacto party to a corporate contract and potentially require a carrier to pay a full contract price, with interest while letting the corporation completely off the hook for its voluntarily assumed obligations.

No insurer reasonably expects the benefits of a professional liability policy are available to cover a contract price for a business deal gone wrong.  Such expectations would expand the scope of an insurer’s liability enormously and unpredictably, creating a moral hazard problem by encouraging corporations to risk breaching their contractual obligations believing in the event of a suit, the D&O carrier would ultimately be responsible for paying the debt.

Recruiting qualified individuals into directors and officers positions in for-profit and non-profit organizations often requires additional benefits to entice acceptance of added responsibilities in corporate governance and decision making. In the non-profit realm, often individuals are volunteers, so additional benefits are often thought to be needed to recruit and fill these positions.  Directors and Officers Liability policies offer enticement and protection for assuming increased responsibilities. Yet, the existence of director and officer liability policies and the protections they afford should not encourage the opportunity to take greater risks in negotiations or contracting. Adopting a risky business strategy should not be undertaken in the misbelief that if the business deal goes wrong, insurance benefits are available to protect against the loss.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact David Molinari at [email protected].

Working Without a Net

Posted on: September 14th, 2018

By: Seth Kirby

For the legal professional, careful and appropriate selection of insurance is an essential component of practice management.  When faced with potential liability for an alleged mistake, attorneys should want the safety and security of relying upon their insurance carrier to help mitigate the potential liabilities that accompany their practice.  Unfortunately, many attorneys do not see the gaps in their insurance coverage until they are faced with a claim arising from their business activities.  A recent unpublished decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is illustrative of this dilemma.  In Hartford Casualty Insurance Co. v. Ted A. Greve & Associates PA, case number 17-2407, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the Court affirmed a general liability carrier’s denial of coverage to a personal injury law firm that was sued for alleged violations of North Carolina’s Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.  Apparently the firm had been obtaining crash reports from the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles and then using the information contained in those reports to solicit business from the involved drivers.  When faced with a class action lawsuit arising from these activities, the firm’s general liability carrier denied coverage on the basis that the claims were excluded as they arose out of a violation of a state statute.  The Court approved the denial, rejecting the firm’s contention that the claim could be viewed as a common law invasion of privacy.

This decision has very little significance outside of the unique facts of the case.  Indeed, it is conceivable that the firm at issue in the case may have other types of coverage that fill this gap.  Nevertheless, it serves as an important reminder that firms should carefully review all aspects of their operations and consider whether their particular areas of exposure are covered.  Does the firm engage in novel or unique advertising to solicit business?  Does the firm use litigation financing to assist in pursuing claims?  Does the firm have potential contractual exposure because it is acting as a title agent?  These are just a few of the questions that lawyers must consider when evaluating their risk profile and in determining the nature and extent of insurance products that they should purchase.  Frankly, this task is too difficult, and the consequences are too severe, to attempt without professional assistance.  A meaningful relationship with a qualified insurance broker that specializes in professional liability placement is an invaluable resource for law firms.  The broker can often spot risks that the firm is blind to, and they are certainly more familiar with the insurance products that may provide valuable protection to the firm.

It is impossible to accurately predict what the future holds, but careful examination, and regular reexamination, of a law firm’s business model can go a long way toward identifying the dangers that lie ahead.  Absent such careful planning, lawyers are literally working without a net and potentially setting themselves up for drastic financial consequences in the event of an alleged error.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Seth Kirby at [email protected].

Federal Court Finds Exclusions in HOA GL Policies Applicable to Wrongful Death Suit

Posted on: September 7th, 2018

By: Peter Catalanotti

Colony Insurance issued a commercial general liability policy to The Courtyards at Hollywood Station Homeowners Association Inc. (“HOA”) that operates an apartment complex in Florida. Great American Alliance Insurance issued an umbrella policy to the HOA.

Two tenants were killed in their sleep by carbon monoxide poisoning at a unit in the complex.

The mother of one of the tenants filed a wrongful death suit in state court alleging that the deaths were caused by a car fumes that traveled through the HVAC of the complex.

The insurance carriers filed a declaratory relief lawsuit in federal court arguing that they are not obligated to cover the wrongful death suit because of a total pollution exclusion.

Both policies contain an exclusion that the policy does not provide for coverage for “bodily injury which would not have occurred in whole or part but for the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of pollutants at any time.”

The exclusion contains an exception whereby it does not apply to bodily injury caused by “smoke, fumes, vapor or soot produced by or originating from equipment that is used to heat, cool or dehumidifier the building.”

The HOA argued that the exception should apply because the carbon monoxide seeped through the AC vents.

In July 2018, the Court granted plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment.  The Court found that the complaint “only lists the motor vehicle left running in the garage as a potential source of the carbon monoxide, and the Court cannot infer any other sources to create a duty to defend” (emphasis added).

According to the Court,

Since the source is unknown, Defendants would have the Court find that the carbon monoxide may have been produced by or originated from the building’s heating, cooling, or dehumidifying equipment, so the Exception could potentially apply. However, Plaintiffs’ duty to defend Courtyards HOA cannot arise from an inference that the carbon monoxide could have been produced by, or originated from, equipment used to heat, cool, or dehumidify the Unit.

The Court ultimately found that the facts alleged do not fall within the exception. Therefore, the carriers had no duty to defend in the underlying wrongful death action.

Colony Insurance Co. et al. v. The Courtyards at Hollywood Station Homeowners Association Inc. et al., Case #17-62467, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Peter Catalanotti at [email protected].

Following in the Footsteps of Lebron James? Ohio Parts Ways with the Restatement of Liability Insurance

Posted on: August 17th, 2018

By: Matthew Weiss

Last week Ohio Governor John Kasich signed into law legislation that rejected the American Law Institute’s (ALI) Restatement of the Law of Liability Insurance, claiming that it “does not constitute the public policy of Ohio.”  According to ALI, the legislation marks the first time a state has rejected a Restatement in its entirety.

The Restatement of the Law of Liability Insurance was approved by the ALI in May but has received a decidedly mixed public reaction.  Insurance attorneys have criticized numerous provisions within the Restatement.

In one example, lawyers have disagreed with the Restatement’s adoption of a “plain meaning presumption” in the interpretation of insurance contracts in the Comment to Section 3, rather than the “plain meaning rule” used in a majority of states.  This means that the Restatement advocates a “contextual approach” when interpreting provisions that requires the utilization of custom, practice, or usage.  In effect, this would lead courts to interpret insurance policies in light of the circumstances surrounding the drafting, negotiation, and performance of the policy.  By contrast, the plain meaning rule states that when a provision is “unambiguous” when applied to a claim in the context of the entire policy, courts must interpret the provision according to its plain meaning.

Another controversial provision is Section 8, which uses the word “substantiality” with respect to misrepresentation of material facts.  Experts claim that the word is unnecessarily vague and at odds with existing statutory and common law governing misrepresentation and rescission.  Similarly, Section 13 of the Restatement deviates from the majority of states by creating a duty to defend not only based on the allegations of a complaint, but also based on extrinsic evidence known to the insurer.  Finally, Section 11 provides that an insurer does not have a right to receive any information of the insured that is protected by attorney-client privilege, work-product immunity, or a lawyer’s duty of confidentiality under the rules of professional conduct if that information could be used to benefit the insurer at the expense of the insured.

The actual impact of the Restatement’s deviations from established case law in the field of liability insurance is subject to debate.  While the Restatement may have an impact in areas where limited case law exists nationally on a particular issue, where state law is silent on an issue, or where case law exists within a jurisdiction but no clear rule has been established, the Restatement will not overcome a rule in a state where clear precedent exists on a topic.

The impact of the Restatement of Liability Insurance remains to be seen, but the Ohio legislation is more likely to be the beginning, rather than the end, of a debate concerning its relevance and practicality.

For more information about the Restatement, or other insurance coverage issues, please contact Matthew Weiss of the Law Firm Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP at (678) 399-6356 or [email protected].

Is Georgia Game for Growing Bad Faith Liability?

Posted on: July 17th, 2018

By: Jessica Samford

As discussed in my last blog on bad faith, seeking bifurcation can be a proactive means to distinguish the issue of coverage from the issue of bad faith and appropriately manage the all too often unwieldy discovery process before it’s too late.  A recent case in Georgia is an interesting illustration of an insurer’s attempt to bifurcate issues after the discovery stage in a bad faith failure to settle claim in particular and is yet another cautionary example for insurers to carefully consider the increasing potential for extracontractual liability in Georgia.  Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87868, *3-*4 (M.D. Ga. May 25, 2018).

In that case, the trial court declined to bifurcate the issues of liability and proximate cause of damages at the trial stage as requested by Geico, which sought to have a jury determine whether or not Geico could be held liable for bad faith failure to settle before being presented with evidence of the default judgment entered against Geico’s insured of almost $3 million and causation of same.  Separation of liability and damages issues was not warranted according to the trial court because facts relating to Geico’s claim handling were relevant to both, and Geico’s concerns could be handled through proper jury instructions, special interrogatories, and the verdict form.  See also Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52761 (M.D. Ga. Mar. 29, 2018).  The trial court did, however, bifurcate the claim for punitive damages from the rest of the jury trial.

The result was a jury verdict of $2 million against Geico for failing to settle in response to a bicyclist’s demand for the $30,000 policy limit based on medical bills of almost $10,000 following a motor vehicle accident.  Previously, Geico had argued there was no coverage due to the insured’s failure to notify Geico of the subsequent lawsuit she was served.  Whiteside v. GEICO Indem. Co., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 203617, *6, 2017 WL 6347174 (M.D. Ga. Dec. 12, 2017).  Notwithstanding such a flagrant breach of the policy’s notice conditions, the trial court did not see coverage as being an issue since that coverage defense did not exist at the time Geico responded to the demand by offering to settle for about half the limits instead.

These unusual circumstances are certainly noteworthy, and extracontractual damages such as these are becoming less uncommon in Georgia bad faith cases.  FMG’s Insurance Coverage and Bad Faith BlogLine has already geared up to cover the Georgia Supreme Court’s upcoming rulings after granting cert on the scope of what triggers failure to settle liability in Georgia, not to mention the proposed changes to the Restatement of the Law of Liability Insurance and their impact.  Whatever is in the cards for extracontractual liability in Georgia, the risks presented by settlement demands should be evaluated in light of these current trends.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jessica Samford at [email protected].