Within roughly a two-week period over this past holiday season, the Federal District Courts for the Western District of Washington issued two dramatically different orders in very similar coverage disputes. In Northwest Pipe Company v. Travelers Property Casualty Company of America and The Phoenix Insurance Company (3:17-cv-05098-BHS), the Honorable Benjamin Settle of the Tacoma District granted Travelers’ summary judgment motion dismissing Northwest Pipe’s bad faith and Consumer Protection Act claims. This decision came 14 days after the Honorable John Coughenour of the Seattle District issued a summary judgment in favor of Osborne Construction Company against Zurich American Insurance Company. In the Osborne Construction Company v. Zurich American Insurance Company matter the court found Zurich had acted in bad faith (2:18-cv-00349-JCC).
The two cases presented very similar issues. A review of the facts of the cases, however, clearly establishes the right way to handle construction liability claims in Washington and the wrong way to handle those claims. In Northwest Pipe Company v. Travelers Property Casualty Company of America and The Phoenix Insurance Company, Travelers correctly identified a tender from the named insured, agreed to assign counsel, and issued a timely and thorough reservation of rights letter. Northwest Pipe argued that Travelers was obligated to pay for the insured’s personal counsel who had allegedly assisted in the defense of Northwest Pipe. Northwest Pipe also argued that the reservation of rights letter issued by Travelers was untimely. Taking the position that Travelers had denied the claim and had failed to investigate coverage in a reasonable manner, Northwest Pipe argued that Travelers was precluded from raising coverage defenses based upon the doctrine of coverage by estoppel. Judge Settle rejected this argument and denied Northwest Pipe’s motion and granted Travelers’ motion for summary judgment dismissing all extra-contractual claims.
The Court found that Travelers was not obligated to respond to the alleged claim for the insured’s personal counsel’s fees and that Travelers’ position in regard to that claim was reasonable. The Court also noted that the remedy of coverage by estoppel is a drastic remedy that would not have been applicable even if the court had found a question of fact in regard to the bad faith claim. In regard to the coverage by estoppel issue, the Court’s decision was consistent with the decision in Ledcor Indus. (USA), Inc. v. Mut. of Enumclaw Ins. Co., 150 Wn. App. 1, 10, 206 P.3d 1255, 1261 (2009), wherein the Court found that coverage by estoppel does not apply in all cases and that an insured still must establish actual damage for a bad faith claim.
In Osborne Construction Company v. Zurich American Insurance Company, Zurich denied the defense of an AI tender. Zurich took the position that the tender was unclear and that Osborne had failed to establish that it had entered into a contract with the named insured requiring the named insured to procure insurance. Judge Coughenour found that the tender was sufficient to place Zurich on notice and that Zurich failed to investigate the AI tender appropriately. As a result, Judge Coughenour found that Zurich had not only acted in bad faith but also found that coverage by estoppel applied as a matter of law.
The disparity between these two cases presents an excellent case study of how to properly investigate liability construction cases in Washington, particularly when it comes to a tender and the prompt issuance of a correct reservation of rights letter. In a similar manner, the Zurich decision shows the extreme dangers of an inappropriate coverage position or improper investigation.
The Federal Courts remain an excellent place for insurers to litigate coverage issues. However, as these cases show, the Courts will not tolerate improper claims handling. However, the Courts will reward those insurers who follow the rules.
Lether & Associates proudly represented Travelers in theNorthwest Pipe Company v. Travelers Property Casualty Company of America and The Phoenix Insurance Company matter. If you would like to discuss these cases or any issue involving Washington law, feel free to contact our offices.