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.

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Is California Bringing Back Statutory Bad Faith Claims? California Supreme Court Revisits Moradi-Shalal


By John Armstrong

California experimented with allowing third-party claimants to sue insurers for insurance bad faith in the landmark case of Royal Globe. The decision was decried by the Insurance Bar and commentators throughout the United States. They found that, among other problems, it created uncertainty when an insurer would be liable for such “third party” bad faith, i.e., before the insured was determined liable to the claimant? 

Royal Globe authorized a private right action to recover damages for an insurer’s violation of the California Department of Insurance’s insurance regulations, codified in the California Code of Regulations. The portion of these regulations dealing with good faith claims handling were based on California Insurance Code, § 790 et seq., styled the “Unfair Insurances Practices Act” or “UIPA.” Based on these statutes, the California Insurance Commissioner adopted a series of regulations styled “good faith claims practices,” which the California Insurance Commissioner may still enforce against insurers issuing policies to California insureds.

Years after Royal Globe, the California Supreme Court expressly overruled Royal Globe in Moradi–Shalal v. Fireman’s Fund Insurance Companies (1988) 46 Cal.3d 287, at 292, by holding that that there was no private right of action to recover damages for violations of the California Department of Insurance’s regulations.

Subsequent California appellate court decisions thereafter repeatedly held that there was no private right action for violations of the California Department of Insurance’s insurance regulations. Appellate courts expansively applied this bar to even first party claims though factually Royal Globe and Moradi-Shalal involved third party claims. And, though not considered in Moradi-Shalal, appellate courts have barred claims under California’s broad Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), codified at Business & Professions Code, § 1700, et seq., when a private right of action was based on Insurance Commissioner regulations.

In the last few years, however, courts have carefully examined the holding in Moradi-Shalal and determined that it did not outright bar claims against insurers based on regulatory violations. Similarly, the Ninth Circuit has also limited the holding of Moradi-Shalal as barring only private damage claims against insurer for regulatory violations.

To summarize the problem, though appellate courts have applied Moradi-Shalal to first party cases, the California Supreme Court never has decided this. Also, Moradi-Shalal did not decide or discuss whether a plaintiff has a private right of action for restitution or injunctive relief under California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”) [Business and Professions Code, § 17200 et seq.]. In the last few years, the Supreme Court has applied § 17200 broadly because the remedies are more limited, that is the return or money or property that defendant obtained from the plaintiff and injunctive relief versus compensation from the harm sustained from an alleged regulatory violation. Finally, Moradi-Shalal never discussed whether a private right of action under California’s UCL exists for insurance regulatory violations other than claims handling or for express statutory violations of the California Insurance Code.

Presently, two cases are pending before the California Supreme Court addressing these issues raised above; namely, Zhang v. Superior Court (2009) and Hughes vs. Progressive (2011). Both opinions are presently unpublished and not citable as authority until the California Supreme Court decides these cases. 

In Hughes, the appellate court found that the plaintiff stated a private cause of action under the UCL for alleged statutory violations of Insurance Code, § 758.5, which prohibits insureds from being required to use a specific auto repair facility designated by the insurer and from suggesting the use of a specified auto repair facility without telling the insured in writing that the insured may select another repair facility. Though § 758.5 was not part of the UIPA, it authorizes the Insurance Commissions to enforce its provisions along with the UIPA.

In Zhang, the appellate court allowed allowed a UCL false advertising claim against an insurer for allegedly falsely representing that the insurer would properly and promptly pay claims though it allegedly had no intention of doing so.

The above cases are important to insurers doing business in California in that these companion decisions are likely to change the landscape for what insurers may be sued for in California. There is a good chance for a modest expansion of Moradi-Shalal—especially since the California Legislature narrowed the standing requirements for UCL claimants to only those persons directly affected, and because of the limited remedies a UCL plaintiff may recover.

Restitution would ordinarily be a return of the insured’s premium for successful fraudulent advertising plaintiff under Zhang. A Hughes plaintiff, may be entitled to recover whatever the insured pay to the company designated/recommended repair facility and possibly the return of the insured’s insurance premiums. These remedies are far less drastic than the Royal Globe remedy allowing claims for money damages, including all detriment and losses the insured suffered, plus emotional distress, and other damages. On the other hand, Supreme Court would be within its rights to take an expansive of Moradi-Shalal and eliminate claims based on statutory or regulatory violations, other than common law claims for insurance bad faith.

The lesson? It’s a safer and better practice to do what the California Insurance Code requires and to follow the the California Insurance Commissioner’s regulations. It’s also a good idea to have insurer-related advertising run by experienced lawyers familiar with insurance bad faith to avoid potential problems. Regardless whether a “separate” cause of action exists, experienced insurance bad faith counsel will use the Insurance Code and Insurance Regulations to establish the floor of good faith insurer conduct in insurance bad faith actions, making an ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure in this evolving area of law.

Changes to Federal Diversity Law for Liability Insurance Companies Raises Federal Jurisdictional Problems for the Insurance Bar


By John Armstrong

Congress made significant changes to the laws allowing the removal of actions filed in local state courts to be removed to federal court. Two kinds of cases have historically been allowed to proceed in federal court—even if filed and served in state courts, namely, “subject matter jurisdiction” where a federal law or policy is the gravamen of the claim and “diversity jurisdiction” where the dispute involves more than $75,000 and all of the plaintiffs and all of the defendants are residents of different states.

Congress changed what are known as the “removal statutes,” namely Title 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and § 1441. Section 1332 makes every corporate insurer, as a matter of law, a “citizen” of the state in which the insured resides, as well as the state of the insurer’s corporate incorporation, and where the insurer’s principal place of business. This is important because insurers can no longer bring declaratory relief actions against their insurers in federal court, and because insurers can no longer remove insurance bad faith actions to federal courts

Some states, like Louisiana,  allow a tort victim to sue the defendant’s liability insurer directly. In response to a large number of federal suits filed in the federal courts in Louisiana, Congress expanded the definition of “citizenship” for insurance companies. Liability Insurance companies are now a resident of the state in which they are incorporated, where their principal place of business [the corporation’s “nerve center” where its chief executive operations take place], and are deemed a resident of the same state that their insureds reside in if:

1) There is a “direct action” against a liability insurer; and

2) The insured is not joined as a party-defendant.

See the problem? “Direct action” is not defined. If the insured sues the insurance company directly for declaratory relief or for insurance bad faith, does this mean that the insurer can no longer remove to federal court? If the insurer cross-complains against the insured, is the insured now “joined” as a party-defendant? If an insurer sues in federal court first, can the insured move to dismiss for lack of diversity? The answer? Only time will tell. The answer will depend on how each court faced with these issues decides it.

A purely literal interpretation seems to preclude an insurer from removing the insured’s declaratory relief or insurance bad faith action since the insured is not a “party-defendant” at the time of the attempted removal, and the action would be a direct against an insurance company. Though the Congressional history shows that Congress intended to limit victims from suing insurers in federal court, the plain language in the Act does not contain such a limitation.

Oddly, if the insurer sues the insured first, the insured may not be able to dismiss for lack of diversity jurisdiction, since a literal interpretation of the Act only makes a liability insurer a citizen of the same state as its insured when the insured is “not joined as a party-defendant.”

If the changes to the Act are read in view of the Congressional history, a court should interpret the Act as defeating diversity jurisdiction only in actions where state law allows a victim to sue the wrongdoer’s insurer directly, which interpretation is consistent with the text’s reference to applying where insureds are not joined as party-defendants.

It’s worth noting that changes don’t apply to property insurers, i.e., “non-liability” insurers. Or do they? What if a property policy provides a defense or indemnity for a certain kind of liability claim? Would the court look to the type of policy issued or to the insuring provision? Again, only time will tell. Now, the insurance bar is free to argue either way until we get some judicial interpretation of these new changes.

Changes to Federal Diversity Law for Liability Insurance Companies Raises Federal Jurisdictional Problems for the Insurance Bar


By John Armstrong

Congress made significant changes to the laws allowing the removal of actions filed in local state courts to be removed to federal court. Two kinds of cases have historically been allowed to proceed in federal court—even if filed and served in state courts, namely, “subject matter jurisdiction” where a federal law or policy is the gravamen of the claim and “diversity jurisdiction” where the dispute involves more than $75,000 and all of the plaintiffs and all of the defendants are residents of different states.

Congress changed what are known as the “removal statutes,” namely Title 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and § 1441. Section 1332 makes every corporate insurer, as a matter of law, a “citizen” of the state in which the insured resides, as well as the state of the insurer’s corporate incorporation, and where the insurer’s principal place of business. This is important because insurers can no longer bring declaratory relief actions against their insurers in federal court, and because insurers can no longer remove insurance bad faith actions to federal courts

Some states, like Louisiana,  allow a tort victim to sue the defendant’s liability insurer directly. In response to a large number of federal suits filed in the federal courts in Louisiana, Congress expanded the definition of “citizenship” for insurance companies. Liability Insurance companies are now a resident of the state in which they are incorporated, where their principal place of business [the corporation’s “nerve center” where its chief executive operations take place], and are deemed a resident of the same state that their insureds reside in if:

1) There is a “direct action” against a liability insurer; and

2) The insured is not joined as a party-defendant.

See the problem? “Direct action” is not defined. If the insured sues the insurance company directly for declaratory relief or for insurance bad faith, does this mean that the insurer can no longer remove to federal court? If the insurer cross-complains against the insured, is the insured now “joined” as a party-defendant? If an insurer sues in federal court first, can the insured move to dismiss for lack of diversity? The answer? Only time will tell. The answer will depend on how each court faced with these issues decides it.

A purely literal interpretation seems to preclude an insurer from removing the insured’s declaratory relief or insurance bad faith action since the insured is not a “party-defendant” at the time of the attempted removal, and the action would be a direct against an insurance company. Though the Congressional history shows that Congress intended to limit victims from suing insurers in federal court, the plain language in the Act does not contain such a limitation.

Oddly, if the insurer sues the insured first, the insured may not be able to dismiss for lack of diversity jurisdiction, since a literal interpretation of the Act only makes a liability insurer a citizen of the same state as its insured when the insured is “not joined as a party-defendant.”

If the changes to the Act are read in view of the Congressional history, a court should interpret the Act as defeating diversity jurisdiction only in actions where state law allows a victim to sue the wrongdoer’s insurer directly, which interpretation is consistent with the text’s reference to applying where insureds are not joined as party-defendants.

It’s worth noting that changes don’t apply to property insurers, i.e., “non-liability” insurers. Or do they? What if a property policy provides a defense or indemnity for a certain kind of liability claim? Would the court look to the type of policy issued or to the insuring provision? Again, only time will tell. Now, the insurance bar is free to argue either way until we get some judicial interpretation of these new changes.

Dealing With Difficult People-Kill ‘Em With Kindness Is The Best Policy—No Matter How Much It Hurts You


By John Armstrong

Being in business means dealing with people. Being involved in insurance claims means dealing with difficult people. Normal, good, decent people tend to be difficult or impossible when under stress. You and your company may be wrongly accused of all kinds of things. You may be threatened with lawsuits or worse. What to do? Turn the other cheek! Don’t given into the temptation to write about how you really feel to the claimant, in your claimants, or to anyone. If you really feel the need to do, write what you want to say on waste paper, and then shred your personal thoughts. While valid, they have no place in the insured’s claim file. 

Why? Well… I began my career defending insurance bad faith property cases arising out of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. The most difficult cases to defend where ones in which the claims adjuster wrote “less than nice things” about the insured.The lawyers armed with the claims correspondence all obtained recoveries and better ones, than where there wasn’t this added “bad fact” in defending the claim. (Of course only this information was only produced after valiant efforts were made to protect the claims file.) The sad part was that if you carefully reviewed the entire file, you understood where the adjuster was coming from. But all that anyone on a jury would be focused on would be the “bad”  comments by the adjuster.

From a juror’s perspective, the claims adjuster, as the insurer’s agent, has all the cards in his or her favor. The claimant has suffered a loss, and may be out thousands of dollars or more and may even have sustained permanent bodily injury from the event giving rise to the claim. In contrast, the claims adjuster’s stress “only” has to deal with fairly adjusting the loss. No doubt the adjuster must deal with the verbal and written threats by the insured and insured’s attorney. No doubt it its unpleasant. But adjusters are held to a higher level. They are expected to be professional at all time because, after all, claims is their profession. 

To illustrate what I’m writing about, I once had to defend a claimant who was also an attorney. I had to copy all of correspondence to the handling and senior claims adjuster and coverage counsel since there was such a high chance of the insured suing for bad faith. But not matter how nasty the multiple tomes of single-spaced emails I received every day, I always responded with kindness and professionalism. The result? We got the claim resolved, and when it was all over, the insured sent me a very nice and unexpected thank you. That is a much happier result than trying to defend your words once your company is sued for bad faith. The moral? Kill ‘em with kindness. It’ll save you and your employer countless headaches and plenty of $$$ in the long run.

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Alternative Fee Agreements-As Good Or As Bad As You Make Them


By John Armstrong

We are in an ever changing business environment. The practice of law and the handling of claims today moves literally light years faster than before with the use of email, mobile phones, ipads, and netbooks. We’re plugged in everywhere we go, and can virtually be at the office while vacationing in Hawaii.

The Billable Hour

The billable hour is still the main style of fee agreement, largely because both claims adjustors and law firms understand this basic formula: The law firm charges an agreed upon hourly rate for partners, associates, and paralegals, the time is billed in one-tenth of an hour increments (the “0.1” or every six minutes), each timekeeper must record what activity was done, and frequently is also required to “code” the work with both a task an activity.

But there are alternatives to the “billable hour” described above. It can be mutually beneficial or a train wreck. The difference? How much is discussed up front so that each side, insurer and law firm, understand what’s expected. This post discusses the main alternative fee arrangements this writer has seen and been a part of, and I will discuss the pros and cons of each.

The “Flat Fee”

In complex cases, such as construction defect cases, usually the insurer insuring a large number of subcontractors will request a “flat fee” per file. That is, the insurer will send a large number of files but will only be charged a single attorney’s fee for each file (the insurer ordinarily covers hard costs, like court reporter fees and filing fees too). This arrangement can work well but two problems usually arise. First, the insurer may not send enough files to warrant the volume discount. This can be hard to do unless the claims adjuster consistently has a steady flow of a known number of files. Too few files, and the idea of volume pricing is out the window. Second, there has to be a mechanism to get a file out of the “flat fee” arrangement if a flat fee suddenly requires more work, such as a large number of depositions or extensive law and motion. Often, this happens when a flat fee subcontractor file becomes the target defendant whose work primarily caused the plaintiff’s damages. At that point, both the plaintiffs’ counsel and the general contractor’s counsel team up on the culpable subcontractor who is now facing a two-front war—not really a good candidate for flat fee work. On the other hand, if you represent the electric door knob polisher, odds are the insurer and law firm are safe in keeping this subcontractor in the flat fee arrangement.

Another variety of the “flat” fee is where a the law firm get a flat fee per month during the life of the file. This may make financial sense where the insurer and defense counsel believe that there is going to be a lot of litigation and where it is unlikely that the case will settle until closer to trial. This requires some sophistication on both the law firm’s and on the adjuster’s part in that the flat fee per month should be enough to cap what would be expected overages in certain months while generating enough income for the firm that the file gets appropriately staffed. The law firm benefits by being able to plan that it will get X amount of fees each month, and the adjuster knows that the fees will never exceed X per month.

The Contingency Case

This usually occurs in the subrogation cases. However, if you have a file where the insured has attorney’s fees clause in its favor, and it appears objectively likely to both the insurer and defense counsel that the insured is likely to prevail and there is another insurer or a solvent plaintiff who could pay attorney’s fees, then such a defense file may be ripe for a contingency or “blended” fee, that is a guaranteed lower hourly rate plus the right to recover fees if the defense counsel are successful. These type arrangements work only when there is a candid, upfront discussion regarding how fees will be split, what costs the insurer will pay on monthly basis, and which will come out of the recovery, if any. And, of course, different percentages can be negotiated, such as a lower percentage if counsel obtains a recovery without having to file suit, and a greater percentage if counsel has to file suit, and a higher percentage if the case has to be taken to trial or settles at trial. Where things go wrong is when there is no clarity on who is paying for costs, what percentage recovery occurs at which point time, etc.

The Blend

Alternative fee agreements have few limits. You can be as creative as you want. It is possible to blend the billable hour, with a modified flat feet, with a contingency component. If your bold enough to move from the billable hour, its best to thoroughly discuss the litigation and trial plan in advance. I would also recommend requesting a billable hour defense budget, because this will provide information on what type of alternative fee agreement might be best for the case. In sum, alternative fee agreements can work, but they do require more work and thinking at the front-end so that insurer and counsel knows what’s expected from each other.

Good Faith Claims Handling–Not As Hard You Think


By John Armstrong

“Good faith” is terrible as a legal standard because it is inherently subjective. It means different things to lawyers, judges, regulators, legislators, and claims professionals, except in the more extreme circumstances.

The most workable definition I’ve seen is in California’s official jury instructions, which define it as “unreasonable insurer conduct.” This of course doesn’t tell us what qualifies as “unreasonable,” but what is reasonable is dependent on the circumstances, that is, what information was both known and available at the time the claim was denied.

Where mistakes get made and where litigation often occurs is when an incomplete analysis of the claim was made when the claim was denied.

Business today literally moves at light speed. We are all expected to do more in less time. Time management tells us to delegate tasks that can be delegated to promote efficiency. The problem with delegation however is your results are only as good as the information you’ve passed on.

For example, a new claim comes in, and you’ve delegated the task of whether there is coverage to coverage counsel as you suspect the claim isn’t covered under the company’s standard policy. You send the claim to coverage counsel along with a copy of the standard policy issued the insured. Coverage ghost writes a letter for you denying coverage just as you thought. Routine, right? “Good faith,” right? WRONG! Why?

Well, the insured did have the standard policy but also bought extended coverages, including coverage for the specific claim at issue. “Bad faith”? 9 times out of 10, yes. Why? Because the underwriting file was available and would have showed coverage existed. It’s unreasonable not to look at what coverages the insured bought before denying a claim. The advice of counsel defense won’t work because coverage counsel was not given a complete copy of the policy. To a jury, it will like this was intentionally withheld. And, if your compensation is tied in any way to the number of claims denied, your company may even be exposed to punitive damages by providing an economic incentive to deny claims. It won’t matter that you made a simple, common mistake because deny coverage for the very risk the insured purchased is the heart of insurance bad faith.

The point? No matter how busy, no matter how overloaded, you must make sure you have a COMPLETE copy of the policy before denying the claim, and it’s always a good idea to run the claim and all applicable policies by coverage counsel to make sure you have the added protection on the good faith reliance on coverage counsel. Getting a second opinion will itself often be considered as evidence of your good faith conduct in denying a claim that is not covered.