By Eryk R. Gettell, Sedgwick San Francisco
In a 5-4 decision, the Washington Supreme Court held that an insurer may not recover defense costs incurred under a reservation of rights while the insurer’s duty to defend is undetermined. National Sur. Corp. v. Immunex Corp., No. 86535-3 (Wash. Mar. 7, 2013). Although not addressed by the court, the ruling likely only applies to duty to defend policies, as opposed to policies that require the insurer to reimburse defense costs. The decision is also important because the court confirmed that insureds under duty to defend policies may recover their pre-tender defense costs, unless the insured’s late tender prejudiced the insurer.
National Surety Corporation issued excess and umbrella liability insurance policies to Immunex Corporation for the period from 1998 to 2002. In August 2001, Immunex notified National Surety that it was under government investigation concerning its wholesale drug pricing. Beginning in 2001, Immunex was sued in more than twenty actions for claims regarding its alleged price fixing of wholesale drugs. In October 2006, Immunex tendered its defense of the lawsuits to National Surety.
National Surety issued its reservation of rights letter to Immunex in March 2008. National Surety advised that, while it did not believe the litigation was covered, it still needed to complete its coverage investigation. National Surety agreed to defend Immunex until it could obtain a judicial declaration regarding whether the litigation was covered. National Surety advised that it would reimburse Immunex’s post-tender defense costs, but also reserved the right to recoup any defense costs if it was later determined that there was no coverage, and that National Surety was entitled to reimbursement.
In March 2008, National Surety filed a declaratory judgment action against Immunex in state court. The trial court ruled that National Surety did not have a duty to defend, but also that National Surety was still responsible for Immunex’s defense costs through the court’s coverage ruling, subject to a set-off if the insured’s late tender was prejudicial. Both parties appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. National Surety then appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.
The court’s analysis began with a discussion of Washington’s duty to defend principles, as well as the public policy concerns that are implicated by duty to defend policies. The majority emphasized that, because the duty to defend is broader than the duty to indemnify, an insurer must defend its insured if a reasonable interpretation of the facts or law could result in coverage. If the insurer is uncertain as to its duty to defend, it may defend under a reservation of rights, and seek a declaratory judgment relieving the insurer of its duty to defend. The majority stressed that by doing so, the insurer benefits because it avoids breaching its duty to defend, as well as other potential downsides such as a bad faith finding, waiver, and estoppel.
After considering how other jurisdictions have ruled on this issue, the court sided with the minority of jurisdictions, and explained that “[disallowing reimbursement is most consistent with Washington cases regarding the duty to defend, which have squarely placed the defense decision on the insurer’s shoulders.” The court held that an insurer cannot receive protection from bad faith claims or breach of contract without any responsibility for defense costs if there is a later determination of no duty to defend because, “[t]his ‘all reward, no risk’ proposition renders the defense portion of the reservation of rights defense illusory,” and the insured would “receive no greater benefit than if its insurer had refused to defend out right.”
The court also addressed two related issues: (1) whether National Surety was required to reimburse Immunex’s pre-tender defense costs; and (2) whether Immunex’s late tender prejudiced National Surety, such that it was relieved of any responsibility for defense costs. With respect to the pre-tender defense costs issue, the court held that an insured under a duty to defend policy is entitled to recover its pre-tender defense costs, except where the late tender has prejudiced the insurer. However, the court ruled that summary judgment on the issue of prejudice was inappropriate because there were disputed facts as to this issue.
The dissent criticized the majority’s sweeping determination that insurers may never recover defense costs under a reservation of rights. The dissent argued that the court should follow the approach used by the majority of jurisdictions which looks to whether the insurer’s payment of the insured’s defense costs would unjustly enrich the insured. The dissent also disagreed with the majority’s view that the unjust enrichment issue was “simply irrelevant,” because National Surety did not receive any “benefit” simply by complying with its duties under the law.
The Immunex decision is a significant departure from the majority of jurisdictions which allow insurers to recoup their defense costs based on equitable considerations when there is a finding of no coverage. It is important to note, however, that the court’s decision was largely influenced by Washington’s rules concerning duty defend to defend policies. If the policy at issue had a duty to reimburse defense costs (in which the insured controls its own defense), the court likely would have permitted the insurer to recoup its defense costs incurred under the reservation of rights.
This case is just one of a few recent Washington decisions that the Insurance Law Blog has reported on. Please click here to see posts about other recent Washington decisions impacting insurers.