Insurance Defense

Insurance Update

The Texas Supreme Court has recently written on a number of significant issues of interest to the insurance industry, and
the following is a brief synopsis of several of those cases.

CGL Coverage For Construction Defects – Penalty For Wrongful Failure To Defend:

In Lamar Homes, Inc. v. Mid-Continent Casualty Company, Cause No. 05-0832 (Texas, Aug. 31, 2007), the Texas Supreme Court ruled that allegations of “unintended construction defects” may constitute an “accident” or “occurrence” under a CGL policy, and that allegations of damage solely to, or loss of use solely of, the home itself may also constitute “property damage” sufficient to trigger the duty to defend under a CGL policy.

The Supreme Court did not rule upon the duty to indemnify, as that duty is not triggered by allegations but rather by proof at trial.

The Court adhered to its earlier decisions that intentional torts are not accidents and are thus not “occurrences” within the scope of a CGL policy. Thus, with reference to a CGL policy, a claim does not involve an accident or occurrence “when either direct allegations purport that the insured intended the injury (which is presumed in cases of intentional tort) or circumstances confirm that the resulting damage was the natural and expected result of the insured’s actions; that is, was highly probable whether the insured was negligent or not.”

That said, and central to the Lamar Homes decision, the Supreme Court reiterated other of its prior holdings that “a deliberate act, performed negligently, is an accident if the effect is not the intended or expected result; that is, the result would have been different had the deliberate act been performed correctly,” and held that in such cases, a duty to defend may arise under a CGL policy.

Within the context of whether or not an “occurrence” had taken place, the Court refused to attach significance to the fact that a case may involve claims for (i) damage to the insured general contractor’s work or product, and/or (ii) faulty workmanship that damage a third party’s property, on the grounds that the CGL policy does not define “occurrence” in terms of the ownership or character of the property damaged by the act or event, but rather defines “occurrence” in terms of “accident” which under Texas law depends upon “whether the injury was intended or fortuitous.” The Court noted that the determination of whether an insured’s faulty workmanship was intended or accidental is dependent upon the facts and circumstances of the particular case, whereas for the purposes of the “duty to defend,” those facts and circumstances must be gleaned from comparing the allegations of the plaintiff’s pleading with the actual policy language, under the “eightcorners” rule.

Turning to the exclusions of the CGL policy, the Court noted that in many cases, some acts of faulty workmanship will not fall within coverage, either because they are not an occurrence, or property damage, or because they are excluded from coverage by specific exclusions; e.g., faulty workmanship which is intentional from the insured’s standpoint, or which merely diminishes the value of the home without causing physical injury or loss of use does not involve “property damage.”

The Supreme Court dismissed the insuror’s argument that such an interpretation of a CGL policy would turn the CGL insurance into a performance bond, stating that any such similarities between CGL insurance and performance bonds are irrelevant since the CGL policy “covers what it covers.”

With respect to the insuror’s contention that the “economic – loss rule” should be applied in the insurance coverage context, the Supreme Court noted that said doctrine was generally reserved to preclude recovery in tort for economic losses resulting from the failure of a party to perform under a contract, and stated that “the economic – loss rule, . . . is not a useful tool for determining insurance coverage . . . it is a liability defense or remedies doctrine, not a test for insurance coverage.”

The Court further noted that the “CGL policy makes no distinction between tort and contract damages. . . . Therefore, any preconceived notion that a CGL policy is only for tort liability must yield to the policy’s actual language.”

Finally, the Supreme Court held that an insured’s claim for a defense under a liability policy is a “first-party claim” under the Texas Prompt Payment Of Claims Act, since it seeks recovery for the insured’s own loss of cost of defense, and hence falls within the purview of the Statute, entitling the insured to recovery of 18% per annum interest plus reasonable attorneys fees in the event an insurer fails to provide a defense where a defense is required.

These holdings were given in response to certified questions from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and, accordingly, both Texas State and Federal Courts should from this point forward be consistent on these issues. Questions remain, of course, as to what effect this decision will have upon future premiums for CGL coverage, and/or future changes to CGL exclusionary language.

•Hospital May Not Recover Discounted Portion Of Medical Expenses By Filing A Lien Against A Patient’s Tort Recovery:

In Daughters of Charity Health Services of Waco v. Linnstaedter, 50 TSCJ 819 (Texas, June 1, 2007), the Supreme Court faced the issue whether a hospital paid by a workers compensation carrier could recover the discount from its full charges by filing a lien against a patient’s tort recovery. The TEXAS LABOR CODE sets limits upon charges of hospitals that may be recovered from Workers Compensation insurors, and a hospital that treats workers compensation patients is bound by the LABOR CODE’S provisions. Noting that hospitals cannot sue such patients for the discount, the Supreme Court held that the hospital could not accomplish indirectly (by filing a lien) what it could not do directly (by filing suit). The Supreme Court addressed the hospital’s argument that the injured worker had sought recovery of full medical charges billed by the hospital from a third party tortfeasor, but nevertheless held the hospital not entitled to recover. In so holding, the Supreme Court stated that “we agree that a recovery of medical expenses in that amount would be a windfall; as the hospital had no claim for these amounts against the patients, they in turn had no claim for them against Jones [the third party tortfeasor].”

Further analysis of this case supports the contention that the Supreme Court has for the first time expressed an opinion on the interpretation of TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE, § 41.0105. This is of particular significance in many other personal injury cases and not just those arising under the Workers Compensation Statute, because this Statute effectively limits a plaintiff’s right to recover past medical damages to the amount that was actually paid by a third party or insurer, and not the amount billed to the plaintiff by the medical provider in situations where the medical provider has, by law or contract, discounted the amount charged for medical services rendered.

•Resolution of Tort Actions Arising From Acts of Church Discipline:

In Westbrook v. Penley, 50 TSCJ 949 (Texas, June 29, 2007), the Supreme Court dealt with a tort action filed by a member of a church congregation against her pastor, who was also a licensed professional counselor, where no issues of health or safety were present, and dismissed the case for want of jurisdiction. The Court essentially held that the civil courts had no constitutionally appropriate role in resolving tort actions arising from acts of church discipline. The plaintiff had claimed that her pastor had learned of disclosed information in a secular counseling session, and then disclosed it to the congregation because of his role as pastor. The Supreme Court noted that in the pastor’s dual capacity of pastor and professional counselor, he had conflicting duties. As plaintiff’s counselor, he owed her a duty of confidentiality and as her pastor, he owed the church an obligation to disclose her conduct. However, the Supreme Court held that, where no issue of health or safety was involved, intervention by the civil
courts for determining civil liability would unconstitutionally entangle the court in matters of church governance and impinge on the core religious function of church discipline. Accordingly, the Supreme Court dismissed the plaintiff’s case for want of jurisdiction.

•Waiver of Sovereign Immunity As To Counterclaims:

The Texas Supreme Court continues to adhere to its recent opinion in Reata Construction Corp. v. City of Dallas, which holds that when a governmental entity brings an action against a defendant, the governmental entity waives immunity from suit for counterclaims that are “germane to, connected with, and properly defensive to its action, to the extent of an offset.” Texas v. Precision Solar Controls, Inc., 50 TSCJ 583 (Texas, April 16, 2007).

The State does retain immunity from suit, however, to the extent that a defendant’s counterclaim damages exceed the amounts offsetting the State’s monetary recovery. Texas v. Fidelity & Deposit Company of Maryland, 50 TSCJ 731 (Texas, May 4, 2007).

•Dram Shop not automatically responsible for all damages caused by an intoxicated patron:

In F.F.P. Operating Partners, L.P. v. Duenez, 50 TSCJ 764 (Texas, May 11, 2007), the Texas Supreme Court dealt with a case which involved an intoxicated motorist who had purchased beer from a defendant convenience store and was involved in a motor vehicle collision with a third party who sued the beer vendor. The Supreme Court discussed the history of the Texas Dram Shop Act, affirmed its prior decision in Smith v. Sewell, and held that the Dram Shop Act does not make a dram shop automatically, nor vicariously, responsible for all the damages caused by an intoxicated patron. Rather, pursuant to the Texas Proportionate Responsibility Act, a dram shop is only responsible for “its proportionate share of the damages as determined by a jury.” In that connection, the Texas Supreme Court envisions that an injured plaintiff’s suit would ask the jury to determine the proportionate
responsibility of not only the plaintiff, but also that of the dram shop and the intoxicated patron, and the Supreme Court noted that nothing in the Dram Shop Act prevents a provider of alcoholic beverages from lessening or escaping liability altogether if the jury determined that the intoxicated patron was completely responsible for the damages suffered by a third party. The Supreme Court
thus expressly confirmed that the Court’s earlier decision in Sewell was not limited to first party actions in which the intoxicated patron was suing the dram shop for the patron’s own injuries.

•Medical Malpractice – Failure of Patient To Give Accurate Medical History Constitutes Contributory Negligence:

In Jackson v. Axelrad, 50 TSCJ 628 (Texas, April 20, 2007), the Supreme Court dealt with an unusual malpractice case wherein the plaintiff was a psychiatrist, and the defendant was an internist. In holding that the plaintiff psychiatrist was precluded from recovery by his contributory negligence, the Court ruled that a patient’s failure to give an adequate medical history may constitute negligence. The Court further ruled the standard of care required in a case in which a defendant is a physician (and also required of the plaintiff where the plaintiff is a physician) is not a higher standard of care such as found in strict liability cases or common
carrier cases. Rather, it is the “ordinary-care standard, modified to instruct jurors that ‘under the same or simisimilar circumstances’ they must consider a physician’s training” as well, and that when a party is an expert, the negligence attributed to that party must be judged in light of a standard of care that takes into account that expert’s special skill and training, even though it is, in fact, simply a form of the normal standard of care of “reasonable prudence under the circumstances.”

•Medical Malpractice – Total Lack of Consent Is Not A Lack of Informed Consent:

In Schaub v. Sanchez, 50 TSCJ 919 (Texas, June 27, 2007), the Supreme Court dealt with our cause of action of “informed consent,” which is statutorily defined as a claim based upon a physician’s failure to “disclose or adequately disclose the risks and hazards involved in the medical care of surgical procedures.” The Court held that an action for “total lack of consent” such as where no information at all is given or where the plaintiff is treated while unconscious, is akin to a battery or negligence, and is not the same as the claim of lack of “informed consent.”

•Relevance Has Its Limits In Discovery:

The Supreme Court addressed unbridled discovery requests in the case of In Re All State County Mutual Insurance Company, 50 TSCJ 902 (Texas, June 15, 2007), and stated that “discovery is a tool to make the trial process more focused, not a weapon to make it more expensive.” The Court held that trial courts “must make an effort to impose reasonable discovery limits.” The Court addressed impermissibly overbroad discovery requests, as well as those which seek irrelevant information, and held that “overbroad requests for irrelevant information are improper, whether burdensome or not, and that defendants are not required to detail what such requests might encompass in order to prevail against them. Accordingly, the Supreme Court granted a writ of mandamus directing the trial court to vacate its discovery order.

By H. Norman Kinzy

Firm News

SettlePou Welcomes New Attorney: Jeremy Overbey

SettlePou is pleased to announce that Jeremy Overbey joined our firm as an Associate in the Commercial Litigation  Section on July 2, 2007. Prior to joining SettlePou, Jeremy was an associate at Chamblee & Ryan in the insurance defense section. Jeremy’s experience includes motor vehicle accident, products liability, trucking, premises liability, and medical malpractice cases. Jeremy is a great fit for the firm, as both the Insurance Defense and Commercial Litigation Sections work together from time to time. We are excited to have him on the SettlePou team.

Jeremy received a J.D. from Texas Tech University School of Law in 2004, magna cum laude, and a B.A. from Texas Tech University in 2001, summa cum laude. He is a member of the Dallas Bar Association, State Bar of Texas and Transportation Lawyers Association.

Creditors Rights

Lease Obligations in Bankruptcy

Very few tenants enter into leases without the intent to pay all of the rent when due. But lease defaults are a reality. While nonpayment of the rent is bad enough for a landlord, in a commercial tenancy, a tenant’s default has far reaching consequences that may affect other tenants (by reducing traffic) or affect the project in general (by making a project appear less attractive). Therefore, a quick resolution to lease defaults is always in the landlord’s best interest.

Many times, after falling behind on lease payments and other financial obligations, a tenant will seek protection under the United States Bankruptcy Code in order to try and salvage the business. In recent years we have heard many horror stories about bankruptcies in general, but the good news for a landlord is that a debtor’s options in bankruptcy as toward the landlord are very limited. Below are a few important bankruptcy concepts and tenant alternatives in bankruptcy for a landlord’s use in evaluating and reacting to a tenant bankruptcy.

At the outset, the filing of a bankruptcy case imposes an “automatic stay.” Thus, although the tenant must pay all rent that is due from the date of the bankruptcy going forward, the automatic stay prevents the landlord from taking any action, including, for example, use of the landlord’s “self help” remedies. The automatic stay is designed to preserve the debtor’s estate either for reorganization or liquidation. In general, the debtor’s affairs are supervised by the bankruptcy court, and action cannot be taken against the debtor without permission of the court or obtaining “relief from the automatic stay.” Therefore, even in the circumstance where a tenant stops paying rent after filing bankruptcy, a landlord must first obtain relief from the automatic stay before exercising
any of the landlord’s normal default remedies such as lock out, taking possession of collateral securing the lease for non-payment, or suing the tenant for past due rent.

Of primary importance in a Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy, a lease obligation is referred to as an “executory” contract. Executory contracts are a special type of contract wherein the parties have some continuing mutual obligation to one another. So, for example, in a lease, the landlord has a continuing obligation to provide the space to the tenant, and the tenant has a continuing obligation to make rental payments. Executory contracts are subject to special rules under the Bankruptcy Code and present the Bankruptcy Court and the debtor with essentially a “binary” option. The debtor must either “accept” or “reject” an executory contract. Acceptance of an executory contract means just that — the contract is affirmed in all of its respects and the debtor is required to make all payments and perform all the actions that are required under the terms of the contract. Rejection, on the other hand, means that the debtor is refusing to continue the contract and surrendering the space to the landlord. It is important to understand from this discussion that the debtor does not have the opportunity to renegotiate a lease obligation.

With an executory contract, the debtor’s only decision is to accept or reject the lease. If the landlord elects to negotiate a “workout,” then that is the landlord’s choice. But the landlord cannot be ordered to amend or modify the lease on behalf of the debtor.

When confronted with a tenant in bankruptcy, a proper landlord’s strategy is aimed towards forcing the debtor to make the acceptance or rejection decision as early as possible in the bankruptcy process. While the Bankruptcy Code provides set deadlines for this decision to be made, in many bankruptcies, the debtor will attempt to delay the decision for some period of time. In a Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, especially, a debtor may attempt to delay the decision until confirmation of the plan. However, even if delayed for some period of time, the fact remains that at some point the debtor must accept or reject the executory contract. If the
tenant accepts the lease, the tenant must bring the lease obligations current. If the tenant elects to reject the lease, the landlord gets the property back and has an unsecured claim for unpaid rent.

While bankruptcy is often viewed as a negative event, landlords and other property owners in a leased property can take some comfort in the fact that their contracts will largely survive as is or be rejected. Bankruptcy can actually be a good event in a landlord-tenant context, because it requires the tenant to either bring the account current or give the property back. And ultimately, this is what landlords are looking for — some “closure” for a defaulted obligation.

By Cliff Wade and Barry Johnson