Justia Insurance Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics
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In 2002, in Texas, Dr. Phillips performed a laparoscopic hysterectomy on Bramlett, a 36-year-old mother. While hospitalized, Bramlett suffered internal bleeding and died. Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the hospital and Dr. Phillips, who held a $200,000 professional liability insurance policy with MedPro. He notified MedPro of the lawsuit. In 2003, the hospital settled with the Bramletts for approximately $2.3 million. The Bramletts wrote to Dr. Phillips’s attorney, Davidson, with a $200,000 Stowers demand; under Texas law, if an insurer rejects a plaintiff's demand that is within the insured’s policy limit and that a reasonably prudent insurer would accept, the insurer will later be liable for any amount awarded over the policy limit. MedPro twice refused to settle. The family won a $14 million verdict. The Supreme Court of Texas capped Dr. Phillips’s liability. The family sued MedPro, which settled. MedPro was insured by AISLIC, which declined to cover MedPro’s settlement. The district court granted AISLIC summary judgment, concluding that coverage was excluded because MedPro should have foreseen the family’s claim. An exclusion precluded coverage for “any claim arising out of any Wrongful Act” which occurred prior to June 30, 2005, if before that date MedPro “knew or could have reasonably foreseen that such Wrongful Act could lead to a claim.” The Seventh Circuit reversed in part, finding genuine issues of material fact regarding whether MedPro’s failure to settle was a Wrongful Act and whether MedPro could have foreseen a "claim" before the malpractice trial. View "Medical Protective Co. of Fort Wayne, Indiana v. American International Specialty Lines Insurance Co." on Justia Law

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Belsen Getty, LLC, a registered investment adviser owned by Terry Deru, obtained a claims-made financial-services-liability policy (the Policy) from XL Specialty Insurance Company covering Belsen Getty and its advisers for the period for one year. Under the policy, XL had no duty to defend. During the policy period James, Jenalyn, and Wade Morden brought claims against Belsen Getty and Deru alleging improper and misleading investment advice. XL denied coverage, asserting the Mordens’ claims and claims brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) before the policy period concerned “Interrelated Wrongful Acts,” as defined by the Policy, and that the Policy therefore required treating the two claims as one claim made before the policy period. Belsen Getty and Deru then settled with the Mordens, assigning their rights against XL; and the Mordens sued XL in federal district court, raising the assigned claims that XL breached its covenant of good faith and fair dealing and its fiduciary duties to Belsen Getty and Deru in denying coverage under the Policy. XL counterclaimed that the Policy’s Interrelated Wrongful Acts provision precluded coverage. The Mordens moved for partial summary judgment on the counterclaim and on several of XL's affirmative defenses. XL moved for summary judgment based on the policy and for failure to prove bad faith or breach of fiduciary duty. The district court denied XL's counterclaim, but granted summary judgment on the bad-faith and fiduciary-duty claims. The Mordens appealed summary judgment against them on their bad-faith and fiduciary-duty claims and on the denial of their motion to amend their complaint to add a breach-of-contract claim. XL cross-appealed the summary judgment against it on its counterclaim that the Policy’s Interrelated Wrongful Acts provision barred all the Mordens’ claims. The Tenth Circuit reversed the denial of XL’s motion for summary judgment on its counterclaim: this reversal undermined the Mordens’ challenges to the summary judgment against them and the denial of their motion to amend. The Court therefore affirmed summary judgment against the Mordens on their claims and the denial of their motion to amend. View "Morden v. XL Specialty Insurance" on Justia Law

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Sentry Select Insurance Company brought a legal malpractice lawsuit in federal district court against the lawyer it hired to defend its insured in an automobile accident case. The federal court certified two questions of South Carolina law to the South Carolina Supreme Court pertaining to: (1) whether an insurer may maintain a direct malpractice action against counsel hired to represent its insured where the insurance company has a duty to defend; and (2) whether a legal malpractice claim may be assigned to a third-party who was responsible for payment of legal fees and any judgment incurred as a result of the litigation in which the alleged malpractice arose. The South Carolina Court answered the first question "yes:" "However, we will not place an attorney in a conflict between his client's interests and the interests of the insurer. Thus, the insurer may recover only for the attorney's breach of his duty to his client, when the insurer proves the breach is the proximate cause of damages to the insurer. If the interests of the client are the slightest bit inconsistent with the insurer's interests, there can be no liability of the attorney to the insurer, for we will not permit the attorney's duty to the client to be affected by the interests of the insurance company. Whether there is any inconsistency between the client's and the insurer's interests in the circumstances of an individual case is a question of law to be answered by the trial court." As to question two, the Supreme Court declined to answer the question: "We are satisfied that our answer to question one renders the second question not 'determinative of the cause then pending in the certifying court,' and thus it is not necessary for us to answer question two." View "Sentry Select Insurance v. Maybank Law Firm" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved the extent of a duty to defend under a “professional services” policy of liability insurance issued to a law firm. The issue arose when the law firm was confronted with allegations of overbilling. The insurer, Evanston Insurance Company, defended the law firm, The Law Office of Michael P. Medved, P.C., under a reservation of rights but ultimately concluded that the allegations of overbilling fell outside the law firm’s coverage for professional services. The law firm disagreed with this conclusion; the district court agreed with the insurer. The Tenth Circuit concurred with the district court and affirmed summary justment in favor of Evanston on all claims and counterclaims. View "Evanston Insurance v. Law Office Michael P. Medved" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, Charles Faber and Karen Faber, filed suit against insurance agencies and related individuals, claiming insurance malpractice. Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Plaintiffs responded that the limitation period was tolled because Charles could not reasonably have discovered the alleged insurance malpractice until a date within the limitations period because a reasonable person does not read his or her insurance policies. Summary judgment was entered for Defendants on grounds that Plaintiffs’ claims were time-barred under the three-year limitation period for insurance malpractice claims. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Plaintiffs’ claims against Defendants were untimely. View "Faber v. McVay" on Justia Law

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Whiteside represented the County of Camden in a lawsuit brought by Anderson, which resulted in a jury award paid, in part, by the County’s excess insurer, National. According to National, the County did not notify it of the lawsuit until several months after it was filed. Whiteside initially informed National that the case was meritless and valued it at $50,000. During trial, Whiteside changed her valuation and requested the full $10 million policy limit to settle Anderson’s claims. National conducted an independent review and denied that request. The jury awarded Anderson $31 million, which was remitted to $19 million. Days later, National sought a declaratory judgment that it was not obligated to provide coverage because the County had breached the policy contract by failing to timely notify National of the case and by failing to mount an adequate investigation and defense. National also asserted claims against Whiteside for legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract. The court dismissed those claims because National could not demonstrate that Whiteside’s actions proximately caused it to suffer any damages. The Third Circuit dismissed and appeal for lack of jurisdiction, finding National’s notice of appeal untimely under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 4(a)(1), View "State Nat'l Ins. Co v. County of Camden" on Justia Law

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Roger and Carrie Peters and Daggin’ Y Cattle Company (collectively, Peters) filed a complaint against Junkermier, Clark, Campanella, Stevens, P.C. and Larry Addink (collectively, Junkermeir) alleging multiple counts stemming from tax services Junkermier performed for Peters. New York Marine, which insured Junkermier under a professional liability policy, defended Junkermeir subject to a reservation of rights. Peters and Junkermeir eventually entered into a settlement agreement and stipulation for entry of judgment without New York Marine’s participation, and the district court scheduled a hearing on the stipulated settlement’s reasonableness. The district court allowed New York Marine to intervene. After a hearing, the district court found that the stipulated settlement amount was reasonable, entered judgment in Peters’s favor, and ordered that Junkermier was not liable for the stipulated settlement. New York Marine appealed, asserting for the first time that the district court judge erred by not disclosing an apparent conflict of interest. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal without prejudice pending referral to a district judge for hearing on New York Martine’s request for disqualification for cause, holding (1) New York Marine did not waive its disqualification claim; and (2) the presiding judge should have disclosed circumstances that could potentially cause the judge’s impartiality reasonably to be questioned. View "Draggin’ Y Cattle Co. v. Addink" on Justia Law

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The Joyce law firm purchased professional liability insurance from Professionals Direct. In 2007 the firm won a large damages award for a class of securities-fraud plaintiffs and hired another law firm to sue to collect the money from the defendant’s insurers. Some class members thought the Joyce firm should have handled enforcement of the judgment itself under the terms of its contingency-fee agreement. They took the firm to arbitration over the extra fees incurred. Professionals Direct paid for the firm’s defense in the arbitration. After the arbitrator found for the clients and ordered the firm to reimburse some of the fees they had paid, the insurer refused a demand for indemnification. The district judge sided with the insurer, concluding that the award was a “sanction” under the policy’s exclusion for “fines, sanctions, penalties, punitive damages or any damages resulting from the multiplication of compensatory damages.” The Seventh Circuit affirmed. While the arbitration award was not functionally a sanction, another provision in the policy excludes “claim[s] for legal fees, costs or disbursements paid or owed to you.” Because the arbitration award adjusted the attorney’s fees owed to the firm in the underlying securities-fraud class action, the “legal fees” exclusion applies. View "Edward T. Joyce & Assocs. v. Prof'ls Direct Ins. Co." on Justia Law

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Georgia citizen George Skipper was involved in a motor vehicle accident with a logging truck that was driven by Harold Moors and owned by Specialty Logging, LLC. Specialty had a commercial automobile insurance policy with a $1,000,000 per occurrence limit, which was issued by ACE Property and Casualty Insurance Company (ACE). Following the accident, Skipper retained an attorney who wrote a demand letter to ACE offering to settle the case for the limits of the Policy. ACE retained two lawyers from Atlanta, Brantley Rowlen and Erin Coia, to represent Specialty and Moors. Specialty and Moors offered Skipper $50,000. Not satisfied with that offer, Skipper and his wife filed a lawsuit in the Allendale County Court of Common Pleas against Specialty and Moors. Unbeknownst to ACE or its attorneys, the Skippers entered into a settlement with Specialty and Moors, agreeing to execute a Confession of Judgment for $4,500,000, in which they admitted liability for the Skippers' injuries and losses. The Specialty Parties also agreed to pursue a legal malpractice claim against ACE and its attorneys Rowlen and Coia, and assigned the predominant interest in that claim to the Skippers.1 In exchange for the Specialty Parties' admission of liability, the Skippers agreed not to execute the judgment as long as the Specialty Parties cooperated in the legal malpractice litigation against Defendants. Armed with the assignment, the Skippers and Specialty Parties filed a legal malpractice action against the attorneys, also with the Allendale County court. The case was removed to the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. In federal court, ACE and its attorneys argued that the assignment of the malpractice claim was invalid and that the Skippers had no valid claims to assert. Because the question of whether a legal malpractice claim could be assigned between adversaries in litigation in which the alleged malpractice arose was a novel question in South Carolina, the South Carolina Supreme Court accepted a certified question South Carolina law from the federal district court. After review, the South Carolina Court held that in South Carolina, the assignment of a legal malpractice claim between adversaries in litigation in which the alleged malpractice arose was prohibited. View "Skipper v. ACE Property" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Debra Hackett was seriously injured in an accident in Sacramento County in which a tractor and trailer owned by Silva Trucking, Inc. and driven by Elaine McDonold jackknifed and collided with the vehicle being driven by Hackett. In 2012, the Hacketts filed a personal injury action in Sacramento County against Silva Trucking and McDonold. The jury awarded the Hacketts $34.9 million in damages. Silva Trucking was insured by Carolina Casualty Insurance Company (CCIC), who retained the law firm Cholakian & Associates to provide a defense. Silva Trucking had an excess liability insurance policy with Lexington Insurance Company (LIC), who retained the law firm Lewis, Brisbois, Bisgaard & Smith, LLP (Lewis Brisbois) as counsel. In 2014, Silva Trucking and McDonold brought suit in Sacramento County against LIC, CCIC, Cholakian & Associates and individual attorneys Kevin Cholakian and Jennifer Kung (collectively Cholakian), and Lewis Brisbois and individual attorney Ralph Zappala (collectively Lewis Brisbois). As to LIC and CCIC, the complaint alleged bad faith and breach of contract. As to the law firms and attorneys, the complaint alleged legal malpractice. The gravamen of the complaint was that the insurers unreasonably refused to accept the policy limit demand when the insured’s liability was clear and damages were known to be in excess of the policy limit. The attorneys failed to advise their insurer clients to accept the demand and the consequences of failing to do so, and failed to advise Silva Trucking and McDonold of their need for personal counsel. LIC and CCIC responded with demurrers. Lewis Brisbois answered with a general denial and asserted 22 affirmative defenses. Under Code of Civil Procedure section 396b, subdivision (a), where an action has been filed in the “wrong venue,” a defendant may move to transfer the case to the “proper court for the trial thereof.” In such a case, “if an answer is filed,” the court may consider opposition to the motion to transfer and may retain the action in the county where filed to promote the convenience of witnesses or the ends of justice. The question this case presented for the Court of Appeal's review was whether, in a multi-defendant case, an answer must be filed by all defendants before the court may consider opposition to the motion to transfer venue. The Court concluded the answer was yes. In this case, the trial court considered opposition to the motion before all defendants had answered the complaint. Accordingly, the Court issued a preemptory writ of mandate directing the trial court to vacate its order denying the motion to transfer and to issue a new order granting the motion. View "Cholakian & Assoc. v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law