Monday, July 27, 2009

Risk Managers Beware: Third-Party Notice of Suit Insufficient to Trigger Insurer's Duty to Defend and Indemnify

Insurance issues tend to go hand-in-hand with most construction projects. From contractual indemnity and additional insured provisions to workers comp issues, contractors must be as well-versed in insurance as they are in bricks and mortar. When coverage decisions can potentially mean the difference in thousands or even millions of dollars of liability, getting things right with insurance is imperative.

For this reason, a recent decision out of the Fort Worth Court of Appeals, Jenkins v. State and County Mutual Fire Insurance Co., 2009 WL 1650071, should inspire a healthy fear in all construction risk managers. In short, the court strengthened an insurance company’s ability to deny defense and indemnity to an insured based on who provided notice to the insurer of a lawsuit.

In Jenkins, the plaintiff was injured when a tank skid fell off a truck. The plaintiff sued the owner of the truck and its driver (among others). The owner and other defendants (except the driver) were served and promptly forwarded the suit to their insurer, who took over their defense. The plaintiff was unable to personally serve the driver and eventually served him by publication, which was allowed under the rules of civil procedure. The plaintiff’s attorney then advised the insurer (that presumably would have provided coverage to all the defendants, including the driver) of the service by publication and forwarded the suit papers. As such, the insurer had actual knowledge of the suit against its insured driver, even though the driver himself never notified the insurer of the suit and never requested defense and indemnity.

A default judgment was eventually entered against the driver and a jury later found that the driver was solely responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries. The plaintiff tried to collect from the insurer, but the insurer denied that it owed coverage because the driver failed to comply with the policy’s notice-of-suit condition. The plaintiff argued that the insurer had actual knowledge of the suit and therefore waived the notice-of-suit provision. The trial court agreed with the insurer that it did not owe coverage, and the case was appealed.

The Fort Worth Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the insurer did not owe coverage. The court noted the rule that an insurer has no duty to defend or indemnify an insured unless the insured forwards suit papers and requests a defense in compliance with the policy’s notice-of-suit conditions. The mere awareness of a claim or suit does not impose a duty on the insurer to defend under the policy; there is no unilateral duty to act unless and until the insured (including additional insureds) first requests a defense.

In short, the court ruled that an insurer has no duty to defend and no liability under a policy unless and until the insured in question (and not a third party) complies with the notice-of-suit conditions and demands a defense. This is true even when the insurer knows that the insured has been sued and served and when the insurer actually defends other insureds in the same litigation. Because the driver himself (i.e. insured) did not make a claim for defense and indemnity, the insurer did not owe him coverage.

To be certain, this decision was a harsh application of very technical requirements of an insurance policy. But it was in line with supreme court precedent and it now represents the law.

While Jenkins was not a construction case per se, the decision will nevertheless have ramifications in the construction industry. Most construction litigation that invokes insurance also involves claims for indemnity and additional insured status. Based on a strict application of the Jenkins decision, it may not be enough to simply tender a case for defense and indemnity to the party from which the indemnity flows. This would be the case even if their insurer is aware of the litigation. The more prudent approach would be to make the tender directly to the carrier.

The same applies to employees who are covered by the same policy as their employer and who are sued individually alongside their employer. In fact, individual employees are often sued along with their employer in construction accident lawsuits. For the employee to receive a defense, they should personally notify the insurer of the suit and request defense and indemnity. The employee should not just hand the suit to his employer and assume everything will be taken care of.

The lesson to be learned from the Jenkins ruling is simple yet important. Because the duty to defend and indemnify does not begin until an insured complies with the notice-of-suit condition, insureds should be absolutely certain that they comply with the notice requirement to the letter to avoid the risk of accidentally forfeiting coverage.