Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Missouri Court Addresses Owned Property Exclusion

In its recent decision in Clarinet v. Essex Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7300 (E.D. Mo. Jan. 23, 2012), the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri had occasion to consider whether a general liability policy afforded coverage for an insured’s obligation to stabilize and later demolish its own building so as to prevent damage to third-party property. 

The insured, Clarinet, was the owner of a historic building located in St. Louis, Missouri.  The building partially collapsed as a result of a severe windstorm.  The insured undertook efforts to stabilize the building, but it ultimately was determined that the entire building needed to be razed in order to prevent harm to persons and to an adjacent bridge.  It was not until after the demolition was complete that the insured gave notice to Essex that it had incurred costs to stabilize and demolish the building and that it was seeking coverage under its liability policy for such costs.

Essex denied coverage for Clarinet’s stabilization and demolition costs on the basis that there was no property damage resulting from an occurrence.  Specifically, Essex took the position that to constitute an “occurrence,” there must be injury resulting from the insured’s own negligent conduct.  As such, Essex contended, a windstorm cannot qualify as an occurrence.  Essex also denied coverage based on an “owned property exclusion” and an exclusion applicable to vacant buildings.  Finally, it denied coverage based on Clarinet’s failure to have provided notice of occurrence prior to undertaking the stabilization and demolition efforts. 

The court only briefly addressed whether a windstorm can constitute an “occurrence,” noting that there was no guidance under Missouri law as to whether an occurrence must result from the insured’s negligent conduct.  Ultimately, the court resolved coverage on the basis of the policy’s owned property exclusion, applicable to property damage to:

(1)           Property you own, rent, or occupy, including any costs or expenses incurred by you, or any other person, organization or entity, for repair, replacement, enhancement, restoration or maintenance of such property for any reason, including prevention of injury to a person or damage to another’s property;  (Emphasis supplied.)

Acknowledging a lack of Missouri case law on the issue, the court surveyed case law from throughout the country as to whether the exclusion applies to bar coverage for costs necessary to prevent damage to third-party property.  In Castle Village Owners Corp. v. Greater New York Mutual Ins. Co., 878 N.Y.S.2d 311 (N.Y. 1st Dep’t 2009), a New York appellate court held that the exclusion may not be enforceable when the insured has a legal obligation to prevent damage to another’s property.  The test in New York, as explained by the court, is whether there is a “nexus between the condition of the insured’s property and the existence of ongoing and immediate harm to the property of others.”  Courts in Michigan and Maryland, on the other hand, apply a more lenient standard, holding that the exclusion does not apply when the insured acts to prevent “imminent harm” to third-party property.  See, Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Dow Chem. Co., 28 F. Supp. 2d 448 (E.D. Mich. 1998); Aetna Ins. Co. v. Aaron, 685 A.2d 858 (Md. Ct. App. 1996).  Wisconsin courts, however, do not recognize an exception to the exclusion, holding it applicable even when there is imminent risk of damage to third-party property.  See, Watertown Tire Recycles, LLC v. Nortman, 788 N.W.2d 384 (Wis. Ct. App. 2010).  The Clarinet court ultimately decide concluded that Missouri courts, similar to those in Wisconsin, “would likely enforce the ‘owned property’ exclusion according to its plain terms, thereby excluding from coverage costs incurred to mitigate damage to third parties.”  In other words, there is no exception to the exclusion, even if the insured is acting so as to prevent third-party property damage that might otherwise be covered under a general liability policy.

The court found additional support for its conclusion on the basis of the policy’s exclusion applicable to any claims involving vacant buildings.  The policy specifically identified the building at issue as a vacant building.  The court further noted that the insured’s failure to have given notice to Essex of its stabilization and demolition efforts before incurring such costs necessarily prejudiced Essex and constituted an additional basis for noncoverage. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mississippi Court Addresses Coverage for Conversion Claim

In its recent decision in Markel American Insurance Company v. Tri-Miss Services, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5850 (S.D. Miss. Jan. 19, 2012), the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi had occasion to consider whether an insured was entitled to a defense under a general liability policy for a lawsuit alleging conversion.

The insured, Tri-Miss, was sued for allegedly purchasing over 13,000 pounds of copper and aluminum that it knew, or should have known, was stolen from plaintiff. The complaint specifically alleged that Tri-Miss demonstrated an intent to exercise dominion over the stolen metals, even after learning that the goods were stolen, thus giving rise to the intentional tort of conversion. Markel denied coverage to Tri-Miss, and subsequently brought suit, seeking a declaration that the underlying matter did not allege and “occurrence” and that coverage was otherwise precluded on the basis of the policy’s “care, custody or control” exclusion.

Tri-State argued that the underlying suit could allege an occurrence if it was determined that its purchase of the stolen property was accidental. The court disagreed, noting that under Mississippi law, conversion is an intentional tort that occurs when “the title of the lawful owner is made known and resisted, or the purchaser exercises dominion and control over the property by use, sale, or possession,” which is what plaintiff alleged in the underlying suit. These elements, explained the court, required intentional conduct from the standpoint of the insured. As such, and because the underlying plaintiff did otherwise not plead any conduct that could be construed as accidental, the court concluded that the suit did not allege an occurrence triggering a duty to defend.

The court also considered the policy exclusion applicable to property damage to “personal property in the care, custody or control of the insured.” The insured argued that the exclusion was ambiguous because the phrase “personal property” was not defined in the policy. Citing to various Mississippi case law and a dictionary definition, however, the court concluded that the phrase should be afforded a broad interpretation as any property other than real property. As such, the court held that the phrase “unambiguously includes the property at the heart” of the underlying suit, and that the exclusion therefore served as a secondary basis for noncoverage.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Illinois Court Addresses Liquor Liability Exclusion

In its recent decision in Netherlands Insurance Co. v. Phusion Projects, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5222 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 17, 2012), the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois had occasion to consider the application of liquor liability exclusion.

The insured, Phusion Projects, produced and sold an alcoholic beverage that also contained significant quantities of “stimulants” such as caffeine, wormwood and taurine.  Phusion was named as a defendant in several product liability suits brought by individuals claiming injuries as a result of having consumed the beverage.  While the nature of plaintiffs’ injuries differed, all suits alleged, in pertinent part, that the combination of alcohol and stimulants in the Phusion beverage enabled plaintiffs to consume more alcohol without passing out, thus causing them to behave more erratically while intoxicated and/or causing them to suffer negative health effects.

Phusion’s primary and umbrella liability insurers denied coverage for the underlying suits on the basis of a liquor liability exclusion applicable to:

c. Liquor Liability

"Bodily injury" or "property damage" for which any insured may be held liable by reason of:

   (1) Causing or contributing to the intoxication of any person;
   (2) The furnishing of alcoholic beverages to a person under the legal drinking age or under the influence of alcohol; or
    (3) Any statute, ordinance or regulation relating to the sale, gift, distribution or use of alcoholic beverages.

This exclusion applies only if you are in the business of manufacturing, distributing, selling, serving or furnishing alcoholic beverages.

Phusion argued that the exclusion should not apply since the policies were purchased specifically to insure Phusion’s products, which the insurers knew were alcoholic, thus rendering coverage virtually nonexistent.  The court rejected this argument, explaining that the policies provided coverage for other risks arising from Phusion’s products, such as “if Phusion sold tainted products and injured its customers in a manner unrelated to intoxication.”  Phusion also argued that the exclusion applied only to “Dram shop” claims, i.e., liability against bars for their sale of alcohol to individuals who then cause injuries to others.  The court rejected this argument as well, citing to the express language of the exclusion that broadly applied to any insured in the business of manufacturing, distributing and selling alcoholic beverages, not just those in the business of serving or furnishing such beverages.

Thus, finding the exclusion clear and unambiguous, the court concluded that the exclusion applied to four of the underlying suits alleging injuries as a result of plaintiffs being intoxicated, including a DUI-related suit and a suit alleging that an individual accidentally killed himself after his consumption of the Phusion beverage caused him to be awake, in an intoxicated state, for over thirty hours.  The court did, however, conclude that the exclusion did not apply to an underlying suit alleging that plaintiff developed a heart condition as a result of consuming the Phusion product since the his claim was based on the dangerous nature of the product rather than its intoxicating nature.

Friday, January 13, 2012

California Court Holds Professional Services Exclusion Ambiguous

In its recent decision in Corky McMillin Construction Services, Inc. v. U.S. Specialty Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3438 (S.D. Cal. Jan. 11, 2012), the United States District Court for the Southern District of California considered the application of an errors and omissions exclusion contained in a directors and officers insurance policy.

At issue in Corky McMillin was the insured’s right to coverage for an underlying class action.  Plaintiffs in the suit alleged that the insured, Corky McMillin, made various misrepresentations and omissions regarding the nature, value and desirability of certain residential neighborhoods. The policy provided coverage for “Insured Organization Loss arising from Claims first made against [the insured] during the Policy Period or Discovery Period (if applicable) for Wrongful Acts.” By endorsement, however, the policy contained an errors and omissions exclusion, stating in relevant part that:

… the Insurer will not be liable to make any payment of Loss in connection with any Claim against the Insured Organization arising out of, based upon or attributable to the rendering or failure to render services for others, including without limitation services performed for or on behalf of customers or clients of the Insured Organization … .

U.S. Specialty denied coverage on the basis of this E&O exclusion. Corky McMillin argued that the exclusion was ambiguous since the term “services” was not defined in the policy. U.S. Specialty countered, and the court agreed, that the term “services” should be interpreted based on its common dictionary definition, meaning “the work performed by one that serves.” The court further agreed with U.S. Specialty that while this definition of “services” was broad, the mere breadth of the term did not otherwise render it ambiguous.

The court nevertheless found the exclusion as a whole to be ambiguous when considered in the context of the policy’s insuring agreement, which provided coverage for “wrongful acts,” defined in pertinent part as “any other actual or alleged act, error, misstatement, misleading statement, omission or breach of duty (a) by the Insured Organization … .” The court noted that while the intent of the E&O exclusion was to bar coverage for liability arising out of the insured’s services, it was not clear whether “services,” with its broad meaning, encompassed, and therefore excluded, the same “wrongful acts” covered under the policy’s insuring agreement.  For instance, explained the court, while the definition of “wrongful act” included misstatements, misleading statements and omissions, the exclusion, on its face, would operate to bar coverage for misstatements, misleading statements and omissions contained in the insured’s marketing materials – the very basis on which the insured was sued in the underlying suit. Given the “canons of construction” that insuring agreements are to be interpreted broadly in favor of the insured and that exclusions are to be interpreted narrowly against the insurer, the court concluded that “there is, at a minimum, ambiguity about the meaning of the term ‘services’ as used in the E&O Endorsement.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Supreme Court of Utah Addresses Allocation of Defense Costs Among Insurers

In a question certified by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the Supreme Court of Utah in The Ohio Casualty Ins. Co. v. Unigard Ins. Co., 2102 Utah LEXIS 1 (Utah Jan. 6, 2012) recently addressed the issue of whether allocation among successive insurers is determined by the insurers’ respective “other insurance” clauses or by a time-on-the-risk methodology.

The insured, Cloud Nine, had general liability coverage from Ohio Casualty for a one-year period, and then from Unigard for the next three years.  Cloud Nine was sued for an alleged advertising injury which allegedly took place during the last three months of the Ohio Casualty policy, continued throughout the entire period of the Unigard policy, and extended into a period of time in which Cloud Nine was not insured.  Ohio Casualty denied coverage and commenced a declaratory action in which Unigard eventually was a party.  The Utah federal district court held that Ohio Casualty indeed had a duty to defend Cloud Nine and that defense costs must be shared equally with Unigard as a result of their policies’ respective “other insurance” clauses.  Ohio Casualty appealed the question of allocation to the Tenth Circuit, which in turn certified the question to the Supreme Court of Utah.

Ohio Casualty argued on appeal that pursuant to the decision by the Supreme Court of Utah in Sharon Steel Corp v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 931 P.2d 127 (Utah 1997), defense costs should be allocated based on a time-on-the risk methodology, and that Cloud Nine should be allocated a percentage of defense costs for its uninsured period.  Unigard, on the other hand, argued that allocation should be determined by the policies’ other insurance clauses, both of which stated that in the event of other insurance, the policies provide primary coverage on an equal shares basis. 

The court rejected Unigard’s argument, concluding that “other insurance” clauses do not apply to successive insurers, but only to concurrent insurers.  As such, the court explained, the matter was governed by its prior holding in Sharon Steel, which applied a time-on-the-risk methodology in the context of an environmental claim, rather than an equal shares methodology.  In explaining the basis for its prior holding, the court noted that such an allocation scheme “was the most equitable because it fairly related both to the time each insurer spent on the risk and the degree of risk each insurer contracted to assume.”  Thus, while the court agreed with Unigard that Ohio Casualty had an absolute duty to defend Cloud Nine, it noted that the “duty to defend and the apportionment of defense costs between two insurers that have an equal duty to defend are distinct issues.”  As such, the court concluded that defense costs should be apportioned based on time-on-the risk, subject to policy limits.

The court did, however, reject Ohio Casualty’s argument that Cloud Nine should be made to participate in its own defense.  The basis for the court’s reasoning was that both Ohio Casualty and Unigard, pursuant to their respective policies, assumed complete control over Cloud Nine’s defense.  As a result, the court concluded, “it would be inequitable to apportion any defense costs to an insured who has no power to select counsel or negotiate rates and no voice in deciding whether to settle the suit.”  Thus, the court held that defense costs would be divided between Ohio Casualty and Unigard based on their respective times on the risk and that “the portion of defense costs attributable to periods during which the insured lacked coverage” would be divided among the two insurers “in the same proportions.”

Sunday, January 8, 2012

California Court Addresses Payment of Self-Insured Retention

In its recent decision in National Fire Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Federal Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 641 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 4, 2012), the United States District Court for the Northern District of California had occasion to consider the issue of whether an insured was required to satisfy a self-insured retention with its own funds, or whether the retention could be paid by other insurance.

The insured in National was a restaurant located within a hotel.  The restaurant hosted a graduation party at which a three-year old girl fell to her death from a balcony.  The girl’s family brought a wrongful death suit, initially against the hotel only, which was insured by Federal Insurance Company.  The hotel tendered its defense to National, the primary insurer for the restaurant, on the basis that the hotel qualified as an additional insured under the restaurant’s policy.  While National initially denied coverage to the hotel, it later paid its policy limit to plaintiffs in order to secure a settlement on behalf of the restaurant and the hotel.  National then brought a contribution claim against Federal. 

After finding that the hotel was, in fact, entitled to additional insured coverage under the policy National issued to the restaurant, the court addressed the issue of priority of coverage as between the National and Federal policies, and the related issue of whether payments made by National on behalf of the hotel satisfied the Federal policy’s self-insured retention.  The Federal policy had a $250,000 self-insured retention and the policy provision concerning payment of the retention stated that “[w]e have no obligation or liability under such Coverages unless and until the applicable Self-Insured Retentions … are exhausted by payments you make … You must pay all self-insured retention expenses.”  Thus, from the face of this provision, only the insured could pay the retention.

Citing to the 2010 California state court decision in Forecast Homes, Inc. v. Steadfast Ins. Co., 181 Cal. App. 4th 1466 (Cal. App. 2010), Federal argued that this policy language required the hotel to pay the retention with its own funds, and that the retention could not be insured.  The court rejected this argument, however, noting that in Forecast Homes, the provision concerning payment of the self-insured retention expressly stated that “Payment by others, including but not limited to additional insureds or insurers, do not serve to satisfy the self-insured retention.”   By contrast, the Federal policy contained a “Bankruptcy Within the Self-Insured Retention” provision stating that the bankruptcy of any insurer, or any other person, would not relieve the hotel of its obligation to satisfy the retention.  This language, explained the court, implied that the retention could be paid by other insurers, or other persons, and at the very least, did not “clearly require the hotel to satisfy the SIR out of its own pocket.”  In other words, the bankruptcy provision negated the otherwise clear policy provision stating that the retention must be paid by “you.”

This aspect of the National Fire decision adds to the body of California case law dating back to General Star Nat. Ins. Corp. v. World Oil Co., 973 F. Supp. 943 (C.D. Cal. 1997) and Vons Cos. v. United States Fire Ins. Co., 78 Cal. App. 4th 52 (Cal. App. 2000), and more recently in cases such as Forecast Homes, Mt. McKinley Ins. Co. v. Swiss Reinsurance Am. Corp., 757 F. Supp. 2d 952 (N.D. Cal. 2010); Travelers Indem. Co. v. Arena Group 2000, L.P., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17931 (S.D. Cal. 2007).  These cases establish the general rule that absent express and unambiguous language restricting payment of a retention to the insured, California courts will allow retentions to be satisfied by secondary sources, including other insurance.  

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New York Court Addresses Impact of Allowing Insured to Default

The recent decision by New York’s Appellate Division, First Department, in K2 Investment Group, LLC v. American Guarantee & Liability Ins. Co., 2012 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 16 (Jan. 3, 2012) illustrates the dangers under New York law in denying a duty to defend, and allowing an insured to default, when coverage is questionable.

The underlying matter in K2 involved a convoluted factual scenario, complicated by the insured’s default.  Plaintiffs, K2, were a group of limited liability companies that made a series of loans to non-party Goldan, LLC.  Goldan’s principal was Jeffrey Daniels.  Mr. Daniels also happened to be an attorney, and in this capacity, he represented K2 in connection with the loan to Goldan.  How or why K2 agreed to be represented by Mr. Daniels despite the apparently obvious conflict of interest was not explained by the court.  After the loans were made, Goldan became insolvent and defaulted on the loans, whereupon K2 learned that Mr. Daniels had failed to properly secure the loans with mortgages and had failed to obtain title insurance. 

K2 subsequently brought a malpractice action against Mr. Daniels and demanded $450,000 to settle their claims, which was within the $2 million limit of liability on Mr. Daniels’ legal malpractice policy issued by American Guarantee.  American Guarantee nevertheless denied coverage to Mr. Daniels based on two policy exclusions: one applicable to claims based upon or arising out of the insured’s capacity as an officer or director of a business enterprise and the other applicable to acts or omissions of the insured for any business enterprise in which the insured had a controlling interest.  American Guarantee’s argument, therefore, was that the exclusions applied because Mr. Daniels represented K2 in connection with loans made to a company in which he was a principal.  Mr. Daniels failed to appear in K2’s lawsuit, resulting in a default judgment in the amount of $688,716.  Following entry of the judgment, Mr. Daniels assigned his rights under the policy to K2, including bad faith claims.  K2 thereafter brought a direct action against American Guarantee.

The court explained that having allowed its insured to default, American Guarantee could litigate the application of the exclusions, but could not otherwise challenge the underlying or damages determination, citing to Lang v. Hanover Ins. Co., 787 N.Y.S.2d 211 (N.Y. 2004) and Rucaj v. Progressive Ins. Co., 797 N.Y.S.2d 79 (N.Y. 1st Dep’t 2005).  The court nevertheless concluded that the exclusions relied on by American Guarantee did not apply since K2’s suit related to Mr. Daniels’ capacity as their own lawyer rather than his capacity as a director or officer of Goldan.  The court noted that by having failed to defend its insured, American Guarantee “cannot at this juncture assert defenses that would have defeated the legal malpractice claims (for example, that Daniels was not performing legal services for plaintiffs but instead was representing Goldan) or would have established the applicability of the exclusions … .”  In other words, the court suggested that there were facts that would have either refuted K2’s malpractice claim, or that could have supported application of the policy exclusions, but by having allowed its insured to default, American Gurantee could not rely on or seek to discover such facts, and instead was limited to the allegations in the complaint in support of its policy exclusions.

In passing, the court rejected K2’s claim for bad faith, holding that under Pavia v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co., 82 N.Y.2d 445 (N.Y. 1993), K2 failed to demonstrate American Guarantee’s “gross disregard” of its insured’s interests under the policy.