Author: John P. Wolff III

La. Supreme Court Rules 10-year Contract Prescription Applies to 1st Party Claims Against Insurer

In a first-party action obtained by assignment for excess liability against an insurer, the Louisiana Supreme Court in Smith v. Citadel Insurance,19-00052 (La. 10/22/19) ruled that the claim against the carrier is subject to the 10-year contract prescription period under La. law, stating:

“For the above reasons, we hold an insurer’s duty of good faith owed to its insured under La. R.S. 22:1973 does not exist separate and apart from an insurer’s contractual obligations. The duty of good faith is codified in La. R.S. 22:1973, but this duty is an outgrowth of the contractual and fiduciary relationship between the insured and the insurer, and the duty of good faith and fair dealing emanates from the contract between the parties. Thus, first-party bad faith claims against an insurer are governed by the ten-year prescriptive period set forth in La. C.C. art. 3499. Consequently, Ms. Smith’s first-party bad faith claim against GoAuto, brought pursuant to an assignment of rights from the insured, was subject to a 10-year prescriptive period and is not prescribed.”

The concurring justice noted that it was not necessary to engage in the protracted discussion concerning the duties of insurers relative to first-party claims. Nevertheless, the court offered an in-depth discussion of these duties.

An Insurer’s Duty: To Defend or Not To Defend

Primary insurance policies include the duty to defend an insured in connection with a covered loss. The insurer is sometimes presented with the question of whether a defense is owed when many of the allegations are not apparently covered by a particular policy. In this circumstance, how does an insurer determine its obligation? The law provides the answer: the “eight corners” rule—do the four corners of the policy unambiguously exclude coverage in all respects when viewed within the context of the four corners of the petition? If the answer is “no,” the duty to defend arises. Mossy Motors, Inc. v. Cameras America, 2004-0726 (La. App. 4 Cir. 3/2/05), 898 So.2d 602, 606.

Courts generally hold that the duty to defend the case extends to ALL claims, not just the covered claims. This duty can often prove quite costly, especially when non-covered claims are high-value or involve extensive factual development or testimony to defend. In some instances, the answer under the eight corners analysis is not so clear. The safe choice for the insurer is to provide a defense and hire separate counsel to handle the coverage side of the case.

In this scenario, where an insurer has serious coverage defenses, but agrees to provide the defense, when does the duty to defend terminate? The Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal recently ruled on this issue again in Ponchartrain Natural Gas System, K/D/S Promix, L.L.C. and Acadian Gas Pipeline System v. Texas Brine Company, L.L.C., No. 2018 CA 0254 (La. App. 12/12/19), stating:

            “Our previous decisions in the related sinkhole appeals clearly set out the well-established rule of law that an insurer’ s duty to defend terminates once the undisputed facts establish, or a judicial determination is made, that the claims asserted are not covered under the policy. See Florida Gas, 272 So. 3d at 551; Pontchartrain, 264 So.3d at 553- 54; Crosstex, 240 So.3d at 1032.”

So, the duty to defend ends when undisputed facts establish OR a judicial determination is made that the asserted claims are not covered. Of course, who is to say that the facts are “undisputed” without a judicial determination that confirms this conclusion.  An insurer could unilaterally determine that facts are undisputed and terminate the defense before a judicial determination, but if the court does not agree, the insurer may have issues. Accordingly, the safe course is to await a judicial determination before an insurer terminates the defense.

It is important to distinguish the duty of an excess carrier because such policies generally do not provide an obligation to defend. Instead, the excess carrier may exercise its “right to defend.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court rules that amount billed by healthcare providers beyond what has been paid by a Workers Compensation insurer is NOT a collateral source that is recoverable against tort defendants

In a very important ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court, a tort defendant is no longer liable for any “actual charges” by medical providers above the amount paid by a Workers Compensation insurer pursuant to promulgated Workers Compensation fee schedule . In Simmons v. Cornerstone Investments, LLC,  2018-cc-0735 (La. 5/18/19), the court concluded:

“…the amount of medical expenses charged above the amount actually incurred is not a collateral source and its exclusion from the purview of the jury was proper.” See http://www.lasc.org/opinions/2019/18-0735.CC.OPN.pdf

The court conducted a detailed analysis of the development of the collateral source rule under applicable jurisprudence noting that the genesis of the collateral source rule:

“Under the collateral source rule, a tortfeasor may not benefit, and an injured plaintiff’s tort recovery may not be reduced, because of monies received by the plaintiff from sources independent of the tortfeasor’s procuration or contribution. Under this well-established doctrine, the payments received from the independent source are not deducted from the award the aggrieved party would otherwise receive from the wrongdoer.” See Louisiana Dept. of Transp. & Dev. v. Kansas City Southern Railway Co., 02-2349, p. 6 (La. 5/20/03), 846 So.2d 734, 739.

Essentially, the court asks two questions when assessing whether the collateral source rule should apply. First, does the claimed benefit arise from some payment, wage deduction or other contribution by the Plaintiff that would diminish the plaintiff’s patrimony?  Second, will the goal of tort deterrence be promoted by allowing the windfall?  In a series of cases culminating in the case at bar, the court has been limiting the application of the collateral source rule in a number of contexts.

The court in Bozeman v. State, 03-1016 (La. 7/2/04), 879 So.2d 692, found that the collateral source rule did not apply when Medicaid was the payor such that the defendant could not be responsible for any amounts above what Medicaid paid to the provider. The court reasoned that it would be “unconscionable” to require taxpayers to pay the bills and then let a plaintiff recover the full undiscounted medical expenses and “pocket the windfall.” The court continued by noting in “Cutsinger v. Redfern, 08-2607 (La. 5/22/09), 12 So.3d 945, this court found the collateral source rule did not apply to prevent the plaintiff’s uninsured motorist carrier from receiving a credit for workers’ compensation benefits paid by her employer, even though the plaintiff paid for the UM coverage herself.” In Hoffman v. 21st Century North American Ins. Co., 14-2279 (La. 10/2/15), 209 So.3d 702, the court held that the collateral source rule does not apply to attorney-negotiated medical discounts. The court also looked at the US 5th Circuit in Deperrodil v. Bozovic Marine, Inc., 842 F.3d 353 (5th Cir. 2016), that the collateral source rule does not apply above any amounts actually paid by the employer in the context of the LHWCA.

In each of the instances outlined, the court noted that the patrimony of the plaintiff was not impacted by limiting recovery to the amount of medical bills actually paid. Moreover, the court noted that the goal of tort deterrence is not negatively impacted, and that allowing a plaintiff to recover a windfall in this context is tantamount to an award of punitive damages that are not recoverable absent statutory authority which is not present in this context.   The Simmons decision now extends that same logic to cases where a Workers Compensation insurer has paid the medical benefits pursuant to the Louisiana Workers Compensation Law.

This ruling will have significant impact on the evaluation, settlement and trial of tort cases that have corresponding Workers Compensation claims.

Submitted by John P. Wolff, III (Partner)

The Duty to Defend Continues to Evolve in Louisiana

Louisiana is a “direct action” state that continues to present new challenges for insurers. Over the years, Louisiana courts have expanded the duty to defend. This expansion created pitfalls for the insurer and forced the provision of a complete defense, even when all or a majority of the claim was not covered by the insurance policy. However, some of this expansion has been drawn back by the Louisiana Supreme Court which recently ruled that, in latent, long-term exposure cases, the duty to defend is to be spread across a number of years­­­–as opposed to the arbitrary selection of a single insurer to defend the entirety of the case. This change presents opportunities for immediate risk transfer and reimbursement to recoup what can be significant dollars invested in the defense of legacy and environmental actions.

A General Overview: Like many other states, an insurer’s duty to defend suits against its insured is broader than its liability for damage claims. The duty to defend is determined by the factual allegations contained in the plaintiff’s petition, which are to be broadly construed. American Home Assurance Co. v. Czarniecki, 230 So.2d 253 (La. 1969). The court examines the duty under the “eight corners” rule which means that the duty attaches if a review of the four corners of the policy and the petition raises the potential for coverage and coverage is not unambiguously excluded. Once a complaint states one claim within the policy’s coverage, the insurer has the duty to defend the entire claim, even though other claims in the complaint fall outside the policy’s coverage. Treadway v. Vaughn, 633 So.2d 626 (La. App. 1 Cir. 1993), writ denied, 635 So.2d 233 (La. 1994).

Execution of the defense duty can present big challenges given that Louisiana is a direct action state where the attorney is often called upon to represent both the insured and the insurer. If the insurer does not properly handle the assignment, coverage positions can be waived. See Steptore v. Masco Const. Co., 643 So. 2d 1213 (La. 8/18/94); Sosebee v. Steadfast Ins. Co., 701 F.3d 1012, 1020 (5th Cir. 2012).  Additionally, insurers must recognize that Louisiana has recognized Cumis (insured selected) counsel in situations when coverage positions issue. Belanger v. Gabriel Chemicals, Inc., 00-0747 (La.App. 1 Cir. 5/23/01); 787 So.2d 559, writ denied, 01-2289 802 (La. 2001); So.2d 612 (citing 46 C.J.S.§ 1157 (1993). In such a situation, independent counsel must be separately retained to represent the diverging interests.

When is the duty to defend discharged: The court will determine whether exhaustion of policy limits will terminate an insurer’s obligation to defend the insured on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration whether the settlement was made in good faith. Holtzclaw v. Falco, 355 So.2d 1279 (La. 1977). An insurer that “hastily enters a questionable settlement simply to avoid further defense obligations under the policy” does not act in good faith and may be held liable for damages caused to its insured. Pareti v. Sentry Indemnity Co., 536 So.2d 417, 423 (La. 1988). The timing of its withdrawal from the suit is critical to a determination of the insurer’s good faith. A tender of policy limits into the registry of the court may terminate the duty to defend; however, the tender must comply with all of the statutory requirements (to include the admission of liability). In this connection, an insurer who wishes to tender its limits and admit liability may well face a challenge from the insured that such action is a breach of its good faith obligations. Pareti, supra.

Long-Tail Exposure Cases: For some time now, Louisiana courts have recognized the concept of “horizontal spreading” over a number of years based on the “trigger” of coverage each year a policy was in place. See Cole v. Celotex Corp., 599 So. 2d 1058 (La. 1992) and Norfolk Southern Corp. v. Cal. Union Ins. Co., 859 So. 2d 167, 192 (La. App. 2003),writ denied, 861 So. 2d 578 (2003). The practical effect is to hold each insurer liable to indemnify only for its pro-rata time on the risk and, if the insured was not covered for a period of time, it bore its own pro-rata portion of the risk.

Until recently, the courts held that the duty to defend in such actions was a solidary (joint and several) obligation, meaning that the insured could select any carrier and require it to defend the entire claim. Simply, the courts held that the duty to defend was not subject to proration such that an insurer who was on the risk for a very short time could be compelled to pay all of the fees and costs and must then file a reimbursement action to collect from other insurers. But, the Louisiana Supreme Court recently ruled that defense costs are now subject to proration in the same manner as with indemnity. Arceneaux v. Amstar Corp., 15-0588 (La. 9/7/16); 200 So 3d 277.

At the outset, almost every long-tail exposure claim is a complex action that can take years to resolve. It is nearly always a very expensive proposition in terms of defense costs.  The Arceneaux decision has meaningful, real-world impact upon both the insurer and the insured.

From the insurer’s perspective, it can easily calculate its percentage of time on the risk and thereby readily ascertain what it owes in the defense of the action. Insurers can applaud the fact that they no longer pay for uninsured time on the risk or the portion of recalcitrant insurers who do not wish to “participate” in a joint defense.

From the insured’s perspective, new incentive exists to scour all avenues to find older policies that may have been on the risk to avoid having direct participation in defense costs. In this regard, the insured will now have strong monetary incentive to keep all policies on file (or to take depositions of agents and brokers to identify coverage that may have been in place). Of course, insurers who otherwise might have remained unknown might now have an active role in long-tail exposure cases.

 

John Wolff is a member of the management committee and a senior partner at Keogh Cox with more than thirty years of experience. John has made his mark in a practice that has included complex litigation, commercial disputes, serious injury, bad-faith and insurance coverage, legacy/long-term exposure, and other matters. He has litigated numerous significant cases in state and federal courts and regularly appears before the courts of appeals in and out of the state. John has devoted attention to non-profit boards dedicated to assisting at-risk children. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with wife, his three children, and grandchildren, playing tennis, and hiking.