Here’s a fairly frequent scenario in the insurance world. The carrier takes a “no- pay” position on a liability claim. The policyholder settles the case and then seeks reimbursement from the carrier in a coverage suit. What exactly does the policyholder have to prove in order to get paid?
In Fireman’s Fund v. Security Ins. Co., 72 N.J. 63, 71 (1976), the New Jersey Supremes long ago set forth the general rule, writing: “Where an insurer wrongfully refuses coverage and a defense to its insured, so that the insured is obliged to defend himself in an action later held to be covered by the policy, the insurer is liable for the amount of the judgment obtained against the insured or of the settlement made by him…The only qualifications to this rule are that the amount paid in settlement be reasonable, and that the payment be made in good faith.”
A couple of weeks ago, this issue again came up, this time before the Appellate Division in GAF v. Allstate, 2012 N.J. Super. LEXIS 35. A class of homeowners filed a class action lawsuit against GAF, alleging that GAF’s roofing shingles were defective because they began to deteriorate “only a few years after installation.” National Union denied coverage for the suit, in part based on an “own product” exclusion, and GAF eventually settled the case on its own for $63 million.
In the subsequent coverage suit, GAF argued that the underlying claimants had alleged that there had been damage to items other than GAF’s shingles (GAF’s own product), such as other parts of the homeowners’ roofs. GAF contended that that was enough to trigger coverage for the settlement, without GAF having to prove that, in fact, items other than the GAF shingles had been damaged.
Following 12 years of expensive litigation and a 23-day jury trial, the jury came back with a no-cause against GAF, now affirmed by the Appellate Division.
The Appellate Division wrote: “It is incumbent upon the insured to articulate to a reasonable degree of certainty what portion of its overall damages constitute a covered loss. This can be accomplished either by direct evidence of payment for third-party damages or by competent testimony demonstrating that third-party losses were a reasonably likely consequence of damages to the insured's product.” It’s somewhat difficult to understand where this ruling leaves policyholders in complex coverage litigation involving multiple underlying claimants, such as in a class-action setting. Assume, for example, that GAF had put up an expert to say that “third-party losses were a reasonably likely consequence of disintegration of the shingles.” The carrier would likely have argued (A) that this testimony was impermissibly speculative and (B) that GAF had to prove third-party damage with respect to each individual class member. In other words, the carrier will almost certainly attempt to make the bar in such a coverage dispute unreachable, and we really don’t know how a trial court will respond.
The unreachable and ever-moving bar seems to be contrary to the New Jersey Supreme Court’s public-policy based ruling in Owens-Illinois v. United Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 437 (1994). There, the Court stated that in complex coverage litigation, a “rough measure” was all that was needed to establish coverage, writing: “Because the defendants refused to involve themselves in the defense of the claims as presented, they should be bound by the facts set forth in the plaintiff's own records with respect to the dates of exposure and with respect to the amounts of settlements and defense costs. Those losses for indemnity and defense costs should be allocated promptly among the companies in accordance with [a] mathematical model developed, subject to policy limits and exclusions. We stress that there can be no relitigation of those settled claims…Available data should enable the master to grasp the generality of the underlying claims and the exposures involved.” (Emphasis added.)
We almost certainly have not heard the end of this issue. The one seemingly certain thing is that policyholders can’t enforce coverage for underlying settlements simply because the underlying claimants alleged covered damage. At the very least, in the class action product-liability property damage context, the Court will likely require an expert to review a statistically significant portion of the underlying claims and opine that, in the words of the GAF court, “third-party losses were a reasonably likely consequence of damages to the insured's product.” (Isn’t insurance law fun?)