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By: Phil Savrin
It is commonly known in our industry that even an insurer that has accepted coverage for a liability claim can nevertheless be exposed to liability beyond the limits of the policy if it fails to settle the claim. The reason for this rule is that an insurer’s contractual agreement to protect the insured’s financial interest extends to safeguarding the insured from a judgment outside the monetary coverages of the policies. Many courts hold that the insurer cannot “gamble” with the insured’s money, which it could be doing in circumstances where the liability exposure exceeds the limits of the policy. As with many such aspirations, however, the devil is in the details in terms of how the rule is applied.
The easy case is where the insured is clearly liable for the claim asserted and the damages clearly exceed the limits of the policy. In that circumstance, it is only a matter of time before a judgment is entered in excess of the limits of the policy. At the other end of the spectrum, where it is clear that the insured is not liable – or that the damages are clearly within the limits of the policy – the insurer is “gambling” with its own funds and should not be exposed to an extra-contractual claim. The challenging case falls between these two extremes, where a jury is not expected to find liability, or award damages exceeding the policy limits, but might do so.
However the insurer may have gotten there, if it is facing an extra-contractual claim then it is likely that the unanticipated has occurred. For this reason, clever (some might say crafty) attorneys may try to make the offer difficult to accept or may not provide full and complete information, with the goal of setting up the insurer for a bad faith claim down the road or gaining leverage during settlement discussions. This tactic may be employed particularly where the limits are woefully insufficient such that there is no other means of a financial recovery.
To counter these efforts, any demand for policy limits should be regarded as the time bomb that it is. If the decision is made not to accept the demand, an explanation should be provided as to why liability or damages are uncertain as well as coverage concerns that may need to be taken into consideration. If applicable, the response to a demand can include requests for evidence or witnesses to be produced for examination and leave open the possibility of further settlement discussions as the investigation proceeds. The letter should be prepared as though it is being presented to a jury, for that may be precisely its purpose; because hindsight is 20-20, being able to clearly reconstruct the “lay of the land” is critical to defending the reasonableness of the decision at the time it was made in these challenging situations.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Phil Savrin at [email protected].