Tag Archives: reservation of rights

A Reservation of Rights Alone Is Not Enough to Trigger Independent Counsel in California

Last month, California’s Third Appellate District added to a growing list of California appellate decisions holding that the mere possibility or potential for a conflict is not legally sufficient to require a defending insurer to provide independent counsel under California’s Cumis statute, Civil Code section 2860. Simply because the insurer sent a reservation of rights letter is not enough.

In Centex Homes v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co. (1/22/2018, No. C081266) __Cal.App.5th __, the Third District addressed a dispute between insurer St. Paul and a developer, Centex Homes, regarding whether the insurer was required to provide independent counsel to defend Centex against actions brought by several homeowners alleging construction defects. St. Paul insured one of Centex’s subcontractors—Ad Land Venture—and Centex tendered the lawsuits to St. Paul for defense. St. Paul agreed to defend, subject to certain reservations of rights, including St. Paul’s right to deny indemnity to Centex for any claims by the homeowners not covered by the policy, including claims for damage to Ad Land’s work and damage caused by the work of other subcontractors not insured by St. Paul.
St. Paul appointed a defense attorney to defend Centex in the underlying actions, but Centex claimed St. Paul’s reservation of rights created a conflict requiring St. Paul to pay for independent counsel under California Civil Code section 2860.

Centex essentially argued that a right to independent counsel exists whenever an insurer reserves rights. The Third District disagreed. Quoting Gafcon, Inc. v. Ponsor & Associates (2002) 98 Cal.App.4th 1388, 1421, the court explained, “a conflict of interest does not arise every time the insurer proposes to provide a defense under a reservation of rights. There must also be evidence that ‘the outcome of [the] coverage issue can be controlled by counsel first retained by the insurer for the defense of the [underlying] claim.’” The court rejected the contention that defense counsel in a construction defect case could control the outcome of the coverage case. (Centex, supra, at p.13-14.)

A conflict of interest exists “only when the basis for the reservation of rights is such as to cause assertion of factual or legal theories which undermine or are contrary to the positions to be asserted in the liability case[.]” (Gafcon, supra, 98 Cal.App.4th at 1421-22.) A “mere possibility of an unspecified conflict does not require independent counsel[;]” rather, the conflict must be “significant, not merely theoretical, actual, not merely potential.” (Dynamic Concepts, supra, 61 Cal.App.4th at 1007.)

The Centex decision follows a long line of California decisions that are “both considered and settled.” (Centex, supra, at p.8.) California courts have repeatedly held that in the absence of an actual conflict of interest giving rise to the insured’s right to independent counsel, the defending insurer controls the defense of the underlying suit, including settlement and trial. “[U]ntil such a conflict arises, the insurer has the right to control defense and settlement of the third party action against its insured, and is generally a direct participant in the litigation.” (Gafcon, supra,  98 Cal.App.4th at 1407, citing James 3 Corp. v. Truck Ins. Exchange (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1093, fn. 3; see also Federal Ins. Co. v. MBL, Inc. (2013) 219 Cal.App.4th 29, 41 [“[T]he mere fact the insurer disputes coverage does not entitle the insured to Cumis Counsel;…”]; Blanchard v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co. (1991) 2 Cal.App.4th 345, 350; Dynamic Concepts, Inc. v. Truck Ins. Exch. (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 999, 1007; Long v. Century Indem. Co. (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 1460, 1468; Centex Homes v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 23, 31-32.)

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds That Insured Did Not Forfeit Coverage By Settling Without Insurer’s Consent Even Though Insurer Was Defending Under a Reservation of Rights

In an issue of first impression, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that an insured does not forfeit coverage by entering into a fair, reasonable, and non-collusive settlement without the insurer’s consent when the insurer is defending the insured under a reservation of rights and the insurer has declined to settle.  Babcock & Wilcox Co. v. American Nuclear Insurers, — A.3d — (2015), 2015 WL 4430358, Case No. 2 WAP 2014 (Pa. July 21, 2015).

The insureds were sued in a class action over alleged bodily injury and property damage caused by emissions from nuclear facilities.  Id. at *1.  The insurer (which issued $320 million in coverage) defended under a reservation of rights, asserting that the policy did not cover damages not caused by nuclear energy hazard, damages in excess of the policy limits, and claims for injunctive relief and punitive damages.  Id.  After an initial verdict against the insureds of $36 million, a retrial was granted.  Id.  The insurer refused consent to any settlement offers, believing the case could be successfully defended.  Id. at *2.  The insured then proceeded to settle with the class action plaintiffs for $80 million.  Id.

In the ensuing declaratory judgment action, the insurer argued that there was no coverage for the settlement because the insured had violated the consent to settlement clause.  Id.  The insured urged the trial court to adopt United Services Auto. Ass’n v. Morris, 154 Ariz. 113 (1987), which held that, when the insurer has reserved rights, it should be liable for an insured’s settlement as long as coverage applies and the settlement is “fair and reasonable” and entered into in good faith.  The insurer argued that insurers should only be responsible for such a settlement under Cowden v. Aetna Cas. And Sur. Co., 389 Pa. 459 (1957), which held that an insurer must pay a judgment in excess of policy limits for its bad faith failure to settle below policy limits.  The trial court adopted the test advanced by the insureds and a jury determined that the insured’s settlement with claimants was fair and reasonable.  Id. at *3.  On appeal, the intermediate appellate court adopted an entirely different test (requiring the insured to have rejected the insurer’s defense and the insurer to have acted in bad faith in declining to settle) and remanded to the trial court for a new trial on these issues.  Id. at *5.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review to consider this issue of first impression, described as “whether an insured forfeits the right to insurance coverage when it settles a lawsuit without the insurer’s consent, where the insurer has defended the suit subject to a reservation of rights.”  Id. at *5.  Declining to strictly construe the consent to settlement requirement of the insurance policy and rejecting the test applied by the intermediate appellate court, the court opted for a modified Morris standard, holding that the insurer will be on the hook “where an insured accepts a settlement offer after an insurer breaches its duty by refusing the fair and reasonable settlement while maintaining its reservation of rights and, thus, subjects an insured to potential responsibility for the judgment in a case where the policy is ultimately deemed to cover the relevant claims.”  Id. at *16.  The court further held that the settlement must be “fair and reasonable from the perspective of a reasonably prudent person in the same position of [Insureds] and in light of the totality of the circumstances.”  Id.  The court therefore reinstated the trial court judgment.  Id.

The California Supreme Court Lets Stand The Federal Ins. v. MBL Cumis Decision

On November 26, 2013, the California Supreme Court denied MBL’s petition for review from the Court of Appeal’s recent decision in Federal Ins. Co. v. MBL (2013) 219 Cal.App.4th 29. In addition, the Supreme Court also denied eight different requests to depublish the decision filed by parties aligned with the insured.

Continue reading The California Supreme Court Lets Stand The Federal Ins. v. MBL Cumis Decision