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By: Brandon Howard
Whenever a court suspects an insurance policy is “ambiguous,” anxiety strikes the minds of both coverage counsel and insurers alike. For coverage counsel, combating an alleged ambiguous provision of a policy typically occurs on the back-end, after an incident has occurred and the claimant or plaintiff has already made underlying allegations of liability. As a result, coverage counsel can only advise clients or litigate matters within the framework of any given insurance policy’s established language. Yet, as policy issuers, insurers are uniquely positioned to monitor trends in litigation, on the front-end, in an effort to anticipate and revise policy language which may appear ambiguous in light of unique or uncommon facts. By proactively taking on vague policy provisions, a prudent insurer may avoid unanticipated exposure and a public battle over any alleged ambiguities during litigation.
Recently, in Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. v. Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc., 2018 Ga. App. LEXIS 634 (Ga. Ct. App. Oct. 26, 2018), the Georgia Court of Appeals demonstrated how a pair of ambiguous policy provisions can expose an insurer to millions of dollars in unanticipated liability. In that case, over a period of five years, the primary insurer, National Union, issued commercial general liability policies to an entity selling asbestos-containing dryer felts (Scapa). Three of the policies had $1 million occurrence/aggregate limits, while the last two policies purported to cap the insured’s liability limits for any one occurrence at $7.2 million. Citing the policies’ non-cumulation and limit erosion provisions, National Union argued that its duty to indemnify Scapa was discharged when the Scapa’s liability reached $7.2 million. Scapa, however, argued that both the non-cumulation and limit erosion provisions were ambiguous, thus allowing it to “stack” the limits of each of the primary policies, for a total coverage limit of $17.4 million.
On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that Scapa was allowed to stack the coverage limits of the five National Union policies because the policies’ non-cumulation clauses were ambiguous. The policies provided that if “[Scapa] has been provided with more than one policy by [National Union] covering the same loss/losses, the limit of liability stated in the schedule of this endorsement is the total limit of [National Union’s] liability for all damages which are payable under such policies. Any loss incurred under this policy shall serve to reduce and shall therefore be deducted from the total limit of [National Union’s] liability.” Confronted with this language, the Court concluded that the non-cumulation provision is ambiguous because “[it] does not indicate whether the limit applies to [each discriminate] policy period only or to the aggregate period under the original and renewed policies.” Construing the policy in favor of the insured, the Court held that the non-cumulation provision did not apply in the aggregate and, therefore, Scapa could stack its policy limits to gain an additional $10.2 million in coverage beyond what National Union contended was due.
On the issue of policy limit erosion, the Court also sided with Scapa. National Union had argued that, under its policies, the liability limits were eroded by the costs expended to defend Scapa against liability. For support, Scapa pointed to the policy, which provides that the limits of liability are reduced by “all expenses incurred by [National Union], . . . in any claim, suit[,] or other action defended by [National Union].” The Court noted, however, that National Union’s limits “[are] eroded only by the total sums that National Union ‘become[s] obligated to pay due to’ any bodily injury or . . . property damage.” The erosion provision, according to the Court, “is ambiguous as to whether such expenses include defense costs National Union is obligated to pay solely as part of its contractual duty to defend (as opposed to those sums it is legally obligated to pay by reason of the liability imposed upon Scapa by law for damages).” Again, construing the policy in favor of the insured, the Court held that National Union’s limits were not eroded by the costs incurred defending Scapa.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Brandon Howard at [email protected].