Limits of Insurer Indemnity Clarified in Parish of St. Bernard Case

When an insurance company provides coverage to a business, the contract typically includes a duty to defend the inured business against any coverage claims. If an insurer refuses to provide the insured with claim defense, then the insured business may sue the insurance company for indemnification of defense fees. However, a question often arises as to how much an insurance company is required to pay for indemnification. This issue was brought to light in a recent Supreme Court of Louisiana case when insurance company Continental was sued for indemnification by a manufacturing company, T&L.

When an insurance company is sued for indemnification, several options exist for a defense. One defense, which was used in the Continental case, is policy exclusion. Under this defense, the insurance company claims that the individuals seeking damages from the insured business fall outside the policy coverage and thus outside the realm requiring the insurer to defend the insured business. In the Continental case, for example, Continental refused to defend T&L against claims brought by T&L employees because certain time frames of T&L’s policy did not cover injuries sustained by employees.
One way to defeat a policy exclusion defense is to prove that the insurance company waived its right to the defense. Typically, a waiver occurs when an individual, or in this case a company, has an existing right, knowledge of its existence, and an intention to relinquish that right. However, even if there is no intention to give the right up, conduct that creates a reasonable belief that the right has been relinquished will constitute a waiver of that right. Therefore, if an insurance company undertakes a defense on behalf of its insured against claims that the insurance company knows do not fall under the insurance policy, and does not reserve its rights to withdraw defense, then it is likely that the insurance company has waived its right to a policy exclusion defense. This means that if the insurance company was to back out of the defense it would be held liable for indemnification to the insured because the insured relied on the insurer’s actions to defend them.

However, it is important to make a distinction between waiver and breach of duty to defend in the insurance context. While a waiver involves an insurer relinquishing its rights to deny coverage under a policy, a breach of a duty to defend expressly denies coverage under a policy. In essence, the two are complete opposites. If an insurance company waives its right to deny coverage, then the insurance company, if they withdraw from defense, is likely to be forced to indemnify the insured for all defense costs for all claims. On the other hand, as was the holding in the Continental case, a breach of a duty to defend falls under contract law, and would find the insurance company liable for reasonable defense costs. In addition, if the breach was made in bad faith, statutory penalties will be imposed upon the insurer. Liability for such claims is also allocated on a pro rata basis between all insurance policies. This lowers the costs incurred upon insurers, which, for Continental, decreased from over four million dollars to just shy of two-hundred thousand dollars.

If your business is at odds with an insurance company over policy claim defense, be sure to consider whether or not the insurance company has waived its right to a policy exclusion defense. If the insurer has, then it is likely that the insured will be able to recoup costs paid to all claimants. If, on the other hand, the insurer has simply breached a duty to defend, you may only be able to recoup reasonable defense costs.

Even if you find this article helpful, insurance law is a complicated matter that should not be approached without consultation from a practicing insurance attorney.

If your insurance company has refused to defend you or your business against claims, please contact the Berniard Law Firm to discuss your options.

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