Employee’s Negligence Trumps Owner of Premise’s Knowledge of Dangerous Condition Creating Triable Issues of Fact

In premise liability cases, a tried and true defense to a customer’s slip and fall action was to argue that the spillage or other dangerous condition happened before the business knew about the spill or other condition that caused or contributed to the customer’s injury.

Recently, a California appellate reversed summary judgment in favor of a defendant jewelry store when the plaintiff established an inference that the business owner or its employees may have caused cleaning fluid to have been spilled on a backroom floor that was only accessible to plaintiff to the defendant store owner’s employees. The appellate court found that when the employee can show sufficient facts to create a reasonable inference that the store owner or the store’s employees caused the dangerous condition, notice of the condition is presumed, thereby preventing summary judgment.

The appellate court admitted that the facts were unusual in that the typical case, the customer has no idea who caused the spill and cannot prove that it is more reasonable to believe the store’s employees, as opposed to another customer, caused the dangerous condition.

Why the case certainly does not mark the end of the defense of lack of notice, it does make defending premises liability claims more difficult where the plaintiff can show either that the store or a store employee caused the dangerous condition or can at least show that a reasonable inference could be drawn that a store employee, as opposed to a third party, caused the dangerous condition.

And just because summary judgment was defeated does not necessarily mean that the trier of fact will find for the plaintiff. If the store is able to show at trial that more than just store employees had access to area the where plaintiff and had access to the cleaning fluid plaintiff slipped on, the store owner may still be able to defense the claim on the merits.

But the case does serve as a reminder of the importance of a thorough fact investigation into the accident. The more people that had access to the area where the fluid was or who could have spilled the fluid, the less likely a court would find a “reasonable” inference existed that a store employee caused the dangerous condition. And, in cases where it is clear that the employee caused the spill that the customer slipped on, the claim will likely be decided on agency or “respondeat superior” rather than on notice. There, the issue will be how reasonable and how quick the store’s response was to clean up the spill and whether there were adequate warnings, as these defenses will decide the case over a claim that the store lacked sufficient notice of the dangerous condition. In sum, employees can be more dangerous than you think to the defense of slip and fall claims.

When Should An Insurer Deny Coverage For The Insured’s Unconsented To Settlement With The Claimant? Not When The Insured Is Settling Only Uncovered Claims

Most standard liability policies contain a clause either as a condition of coverage or as an exclusion that the insured cannot make a “voluntary” payment to settle claims without the insurer’s consent. Sounds relatively simple, right? Not really. The paradigm case where an insurer will be well within its rights to deny coverage for the insured’s voluntary payment is where the insured settles a covered claim without tendering the claim to the insurer first but then demands that the insurer reimburse the insured for the settlement. Unlike other “notice” provisions, in California, the insurer is not required to show prejudice before standing on the voluntary payments clause to deny coverage. Because an insurer is not required to show prejudice from late notice of the tender of indemnity for voluntary settlement payments, California courts have denied coverage for voluntary payments and settlements made post tender and while the insurer was defending the claim.

One might think then that anytime an insured settles a claim, pre or post-tender, the insurer could deny coverage. The answer? Sort of. Why? It depends on what the insured is settling. The following example illustrates the problem. Say the insurer is defending covered and uncovered claims under a reservation of rights, and is also reserving its right to seek reimbursement for defending uncovered claims as authorized by the California Supreme Court’s Buss decision. A mediation is scheduled and the insured and the insurer are participating in the mediation. The insured is worried about a large uncovered judgment being entered against. You, the claims adjuster, believe you have a good chance of defensing the covered claims or obtaining a result far less than the plaintiff’s demand. You offer nothing towards the settlement of the non-covered claims. The insured ponies up his own dough to effect a settlement with plaintiff for all the non-covered claims because the insured is afraid of:

(1) A massive judgment for which there is no insurance coverage as per the insurer’s reservation of rights letter; and

(2) A second lawsuit by the insurer for reimbursement for the defense of the uncovered claims.

Presently, no California state court has addressed this exact factual scenario, despite this becoming a more common situation. Do you believe you could justifiably deny all coverage to the insured if the insured settled only the non-covered claims, thereby leaving only the covered claims to be litigated?

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said no, in a case involving Tosco oil refineries in the context of worker’s compensation insurance for claim arising out of the Northern District of California. (See Travelers Prop. Cas. Co. of America vs. ConocoPhillips Co. [Tosco] (9th Cir. (Cal.) 2008) 546 F.3d 1142, 1146.) The Ninth Circuit recognized that in ever case where a California court denied coverage for the insured’s breach of the “no voluntary payments” clause of the policy, the insured was seeking reimbursement for the settlement of covered claims, thereby denying the insurer the right to defend the claim as the insurer saw fit. (Recall that though insurer’s have a duty to defend in liability insurance, it always described as the “right” and duty to defend.) In the Tosco case, the insurer denied coverage for the covered claims it was defending because the insured had settled the non-covered claims that the insurer was defending under a reservation of rights. Tosco was not seeking reimbursement for its settlement of the non-covered claims, but merely sought the continued defense and indemnity for the admittedly covered claims. The Ninth Circuit found that Tosco’s insurer could not rely on the no voluntary payments coverage provision to deny Tosco coverage for the insured claims. (The court also found that the insured didn’t technically “pay” money to the claimant but did not take an authorized “credit,” which the court also found did not technically qualify as a “payment” so as to amount to a breach of the policy’s “no voluntary payments” exclusion.)

Even the California state cases that have denied coverage for breach of the “no voluntary payments clause” recognize an exception to the insurer’s ability to lawfully deny coverage where the insured “faces a situation requiring an immediate response to protect [the insured’s] legal interests.” (Truck Ins. Exch. vs. Unigard Ins. Co. (2000) 79 Cal.App.4th 966, 977, fn. 15.) 

The above fact pattern is snake pit to the unwary. Relying on the “no voluntary payments” clause to deny coverage for the covered portion of the claim is a high risk proposition. The insured will argue that he or she was forced to settle to avoid a large uncovered judgment and to avoid a subsequent Buss action. There is little equity in arguing to a judge or jury that the insurer has the legal right to:

(1) Bar the insured from capping the insured’s personal, non-covered liability exposure; and

(2) Run up defense costs and fees on the uncovered claims only to seek reimbursement for defending the non-covered claims in addition to the insured having to pay the claimant the uncovered portion of the judgment.

“That dog don’t hunt.” It will likely result in a successful breach of contract/insurance bad faith action because it won’t look like the insurer gave at least as much consideration to the insured’s interests as the insurer gave itself. The solution? Don’t deny all coverage if the insured wants to settle claims you are disclaiming coverage for. But, do remind the insured that the insurer has no obligation to reimburse the insured for settling non-covered claims. There may even be times when it would be worth making a small costs of defense contribution to resolve non-covered claims, thereby eliminating the need for independent or Cumis counsel.

Good Faith Claims Denial? Yes, Virginia, It Is Possible Even In California By Following These 6 Steps

Every time a claim is denied, there is always a concern that the claimant will sue for insurance bad faith. Claims denials should not be taken lightly. Even if it is clear to you that the claim is not covered, I suggest doing the following to make it difficult, if not impossible, for a claimant to prevail in a bad faith claim against your company following your denial. (I cannot say that the following will prevent a bad faith claim; if a monkey pays the requisite filing, that monkey can at least file suit in California. The goal here is to discourage reputable counsel from pursuing bad faith claims, and that’s worth avoiding.)

First, make sure you’ve looked at all the insured’s coverages with your company, not just the policy the insured tendered under. If the insured has other coverages with your company that may cover the claim, advise the insured in writing that the company is still evaluating the claim for coverage. Do not deny the claim out of hand. You are entitled to conduct a reasonable investigation before denying coverage. So conduct a reasonable investigation first.

Second, respond to the claim within 15 days of your receipt of the claim in writing to the insured. California Department of Insurance Regulations regarding liability carriers to advise the insured in writing within 15 days the status of the claims. (10 Calif. Code of Regs., § 10 CCR § 2695.5, subdivision (b).) You don’t have to accept or reject the claim within 15 days, just acknowledge you’ve received the claim and are evaluating. If the insured inquires about the status of the claim, you need to respond within 15 days with what you know about the claim and what you’re doing about, such as evaluating it, investigating, etc. The insurance regulation above notes that you can just make a note in your claims file when the claim came in, but it is a better practice to both note your file and tell the insured in writing that you are considering the claim. Why, because the insured has tendered and is wondering what, if anything, the insurer is doing with the claim, and will be much more patient knowing someone is working on the claim.

Third, provide the claimant any necessary forms, instructions, and reasonable assistance the claimant needs to properly make the claim, which includes telling the insured if there is missing information necessary to make a valid proof a claim. This also required under the same insurance regulation cited above at subdivision (e). Failing to tell the insured what the insured needed to do in order to submit a valid claim will not make the claim go away. It will most likely encourage the insured to get an insurance bad faith lawyer or encourage the insured to complain to the California Department of Insurance—results you are trying to avoid.

Fourth, investigate the claim. Some claimants won’t have counsel. Some claimants who have counsel don’t have legal counsel knowledgeable about insurance practices. You shouldn’t just rely on the insured’s tender to tell you everything you know about a claim. On receipt of a claim, you should verify with the insured that insured and insured’s counsel, if any, have provided you with all information relating to the claim, including copies of any pleadings or discovery. If you know who the attorney representing the party suing the insured, call that attorney and ask for information about the claim. You could also retain coverage counsel to assist with your investigation if necessary. The point is you want to document your file that you made reasonable efforts to gather information about the claim before denying it. In California, an insurer can be liable for insurance bad faith for failing to reasonably investigate a claim. Note too that the same California insurance regulation cited above also requires “any necessary investigation of the claim.” Here, “necessary” and “reasonable” are synonymous. What you want to avoid is having an empty claims file that shows little or no effort went into investigating the insured’s claim. If you deny without conducting a reasonable investigation, you are encouraging an insurance bad faith lawyer to take the claimant’s case.

Fifth, if its close to being a “close call” about whether coverage exists, get a second opinion. Even better two. Run the claim by a more experienced and knowledgeable adjuster at your company, and not your file that you did this. Get an opinion from coverage counsel too, and make sure you note that in your file.

Sixth, when denying the claim, carefully explain to the insured the coverages the insured had, what your understanding of the claim is, and what you did to investigate the claim. Then explain why there is not coverage under the policy for the claim that the insured submitted. Most insureds are not insurance experts and many lawyers do not practice insurance law. A well thought out, thoughtful, and professional denial letter is perhaps the best talisman to ward off bad faith claims. Why? Because the letter should should the good faith consideration the company undertook to evaluate the claim. It would be Exhibit “1” to your company’s defense. The importance of such a letter cannot be understated. If there is something you missed, or if your information is incomplete, you’ve not put the ball in the insured’s court to respond. Even in California, insurers are not liable for mistakes or even ordinary negligence in claims handling.

Following the above six steps creates an evidentiary record showing good faiths claims handling. It will help your defense counsel immensely if you followed these steps, and will both ward off potential bad faith claims or certainly make the resolution of such a claim more favorable for your company.