As part of its travel pitch, Louisiana tourism once used the slogan: “Louisiana. Come as you are. Leave different.” If an out-of-state insurer writes in Louisiana and does not understand the ramifications of “Gasquet,” then they may leave different, very different.
The term “Gasquet” comes from the case of Gasquet v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 391 So. 2d 466 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1980). The case considered how a settlement of the plaintiff’s claims against the primary carrier and a partial settlement of claims against the tortfeasor/insured impacted the excess carrier.
In Gasquet, the plaintiff alleged serious personal injury. Prior to trial, he settled with the primary insurer, Commercial Union, for $200,000, even though it had a $300,000 policy limit. In the deal, the plaintiff fully released Commercial Union. He also released the tortfeasor/insured from all liability not insured by the excess carrier, Stonewall Insurance. The insured therefore remained in the lawsuit as a “nominal defendant” to allow the plaintiff to pursue the excess carrier.
After settlement, the excess carrier denied the claim and asserted that payment by the primary carrier of less than policy limits did not trigger its policy, which required that the primary policy be “exhausted.” Without exhaustion, the excess carrier argued that it could not be called upon to respond under its policy language. The court rejected this argument and held that the plaintiff was entitled to a direct action against the excess carrier who would, in turn, receive a credit for the full limits of the primary policy. The “Gasquet release” has since become a staple of Louisiana litigation.
In Louisiana, unlike many states, a primary insurer owes no general duty to the excess carrier under Great Southwest Fire Ins. Co. v. CNA Insurance Companies, 557 So. 2d 966 (La. 1990). This creates a dynamic not present in states where the primary carrier is duty bound to consider the interests of the excess carrier. This lack of duty magnifies the vulnerability of the excess carrier’s position in Gasquet-friendly Louisiana.
An excess carrier in Louisiana should measure its reliance upon a primary carrier who can independently settle out with the plaintiff, sometimes on the eve of trial. If the excess carrier relied upon the primary carrier to defend the case, the excess carrier could be placed in the unenviable position of scrambling to defend a case where the insured (protected by Gasquet) may be suddenly disinterested in the outcome. Excess carriers with real potential exposure need to stay involved in the litigation and be prepared.
Following Gasquet, permutations have developed such as a “reverse-Gasquet,” where the excess carrier settles with the plaintiff and then pursues the primary insurer to recoup its payment. So, come to Louisiana, but know that we are sometimes different.
Collin LeBlanc is a Keogh Cox partner and experienced litigator who concentrates in injury, commercial, and legal malpractice disputes. He lives in nearby Zachary, Louisiana with his wife Melissa and three all-too-active children. He is an outdoorsman, a tennis player, a cook, and a hobbyist writer.