Articles Posted in Insurance Coverage

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The case is ALPS Prop. & Cas. v. Keller, Reynolds 482 P.3d 638 (Montana, 2021). After purchasing the malpractice insurance policy, the firm sought to tender a malpractice claim to the insurer. Unfortunately for the lawyers, the insurer denied coverage because the law firm knew the basis of the malpractice action before it purchased the insurance policy. The Montana Supreme Court held that there was no coverage under the policy because the law firm (through one of its partners) was aware of the potential claim before purchasing insurance.

The reasoning:

¶16 Here, the Policy contains two provisions—one coverage provision, and one exclusionary provision—that enforce this basic concept. First, in defining the scope of the Policy’s coverage, provision 1.1.2 states that ALPS “agrees to pay on behalf of the Insured all sums (in excess of the Deductible amount) that the Insured becomes legally obligated to pay as Damages, arising from or in connection with a Claim first made against the Insured and first reported to [ALPS] during the policy period, provided that at the Effective Date of [the] Policy, no Insured knew or reasonably should have known or foreseen that the act, error, omission or Personal Injury might be the basis of a Claim….” (Emphasis added.)

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Illinois does not require a lawyer to have insurance. However, the ARDC requests that you inform it each year whether or not you have insurance.

My advice to the public is that you should never hire a lawyer who is uninsured. First, if something goes wrong, you have little chance of any recovery. Second, the insurance process forces lawyers to look at their own conduct and consider whether certain practices are appropriate. Third, most policies have coverage for any grievance that someone may file with the bar association or attorney regulator. Having insurance gives you access to free CLE and you can usually call your insurer and ask questions about some practices. (Not every policy has all of these benefits, but your policy might have them.)

Most important of all, having insurance will discourage you from filing a lawsuit for legal fees against a former client.

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ISBA Mutual has won an appeal against a case filed by the McNabola Law Group, P.C., 2019 IL App (1st) 182386. McNabola handled a case for Scot and Patricia Vandenberg against Brunswick. While that jury was deliberating, there was a dispute as to whether McNabola obtained inside information about the jury’s deliberations before accepting the settlement. (That dispute is itself complicated and the facts are disputed. There have been multiple proceedings to sort out that dispute). The Vandenbergs discharged McNabola and retained new counsel. After the Vandenberg case settled, the Vandenbergs challenged the validity of McNabola’s lien. The Vandenbergs also sued McNabola for legal malpractice.

McNabola requested that his insurer, ISBA Mutual, handle the lien dispute. ISBA mutual refused on the ground that the dispute involved legal fees, not a malpractice claim. The trial court ruled that ISBA mutual had a duty to defend McNabola, but the Illinois Appellate Court disagreed and reversed. The holding follows:

¶ 29 We find that the underlying motion did not seek damages arising from wrongful conduct as defined in the malpractice policy and contemplated by the parties. Accordingly, ISBA Mutual had no duty to defend McNabola against the Vandenbergs’ motion to adjudicate an attorney’s lien, and the trial court’s finding to the contrary was error.

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Plaintiffs, Charles Faber and Karen Faber, filed suit against insurance agencies and related individuals, claiming insurance malpractice. Defendants moved for summary judgment on the basis that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations. Plaintiffs responded that the limitation period was tolled because Charles could not reasonably have discovered the alleged insurance malpractice until a date within the limitations period because a reasonable person does not read his or her insurance policies. Summary judgment was entered for Defendants on grounds that Plaintiffs’ claims were time-barred under the three-year limitation period for insurance malpractice claims. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Plaintiffs’ claims against Defendants were untimely.

This is an insurance malpractice case, a case in which the plaintiff claimed that it was insurance malpractice to fail to include uninsured motorist coverage in his umbrella policy. The court rejected this claim because the insurance company sent notices to the plaintiff explaining exactly what coverage he had purchased. Because the change in coverage (dropping the uninsured motorist coverage) occurred in 2002, the statute of limitations had long expired before the Plaintiff filed suit.

The analysis:

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This is a case where an insurance company sued a lawyer to rescind an insurance policy on the basis that the lawyer made material omissions in his application for insurance and in his application to renew his insurance. The lawyer missed the statute of limitations in a personal injury case and was tardy in filing an appeal of an adverse judgment. Despite these omissions, he told Liberty that he was not aware of any claim against him. The opinion summarizes this language as follows:

In addition to the renewal application prepared by Mr. Wolfe for the 2013 Policy, Mr. Wolfe also submitted a Notice of Acceptance Letter to Liberty on November 5, 2013, in which he wrote, in part: “this letter acknowledges that, after inquiry, I am not aware of any claims and/or circumstances, acts, errors, or omissions that could result in a professional liability claim since completion of my last application and supplements.” Id. ¶ 28. As a result of Mr. Wolfe’s certification on each application that he had no knowledge of circumstances that could result in potential claims against him, Liberty issued the 2011, 2012, and 2013 policies. Id. ¶¶ 22, 25, 29. Liberty now contends that these certifications were material misrepresentations. Id. ¶¶ 56-67.

The lawyer also failed to respond to Liberty’s requests for information for the two claims.

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This is a lawsuit between an attorney and his malpractice carrier. The lawyer, Thomas Edwards, handled a personal injury lawsuit on behalf of a commercial diver against the diver’s former employer, Cal Dive. He obtained a multi-million dollar settlement. The victory was short-lived as one year later Cal Dive filed suit against the diver and Edwards alleging that the diver had exaggerated his injuries. Cal Dive sued Edwards for restitution and unjust enrichment.

Edwards requested that his insurance company defend him, but they declined. Edwards filed suit. While he obtained summary judgment in the trial court, the Fifth Circuit reversed that ruling and entered judgment for the insurance company.

The Fifth Circuit held that claims for unjust enrichment and restitution were not legal malpractice claims because they asserted no breach of the standard of care. Therefore, the policy did not provide a duty to defend or require any other coverage. The pertinent reasoning is as follows:

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This case presents an all too familiar story: a lawyer obtains malpractice insurance but does not realize or understand that the insurance policy contains an exception for any outside business interest.

David Marks was the trustee of two trusts that owned a controlling interest in Titan Global Holdings, Inc. Marks purchased professional liability insurance but the policy contained this exclusion:

This Policy does not apply either directly or indirectly to any Claim and Claim Expenses: a) Based upon or arising out of any dishonest, criminal, fraudulent, malicious or intentional Wrongful Acts, errors or omissions committed by or at the direction of the Insured.

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The plaintiff sued a lawyer for legal malpractice. The lawyer failed to timely report the legal malpractice claim to his carrier and the claim was denied. The plaintiff then sued the insurer directly with no success for the same reason. Because the lawyer failed to report the claim to the insurer, the claim for coverage was denied.

Do not ever retain an attorney who does not have insurance.

Source: McCarty v. NATIONAL UNION FIRE INSURANCE COMPANY OF PITTSBURGH, PA, Dist. Court, SD Ohio 2016 – Google Scholar

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The case is captioned Illinois State Bar Association Mutual Insurance Company v. Thomas W. Burkhart, et al., 2015 IL App (4th) 140936-U.

An attorney, Thomas Burkhart, represented Robert and Elizabeth Wilson in a real estate transaction and related litigation. That litigation ultimately resulted in a jury verdict of $30,000 for the Wilsons. Opinion ¶ 9. The proceeds were deposited with the Bank of Edwardsville.

In 2005, trouble arose when Burkhart filed a motion in the state court case seeking $35,806.85 in legal fees, apparently $5,806.85 more than the amount of the jury verdict. The Wilsons responded with a counterclaim for negligence and legal malpractice. Burkhart tendered the defense of the claims to ISBA Mutual, which agreed to pay for Burkhart’s defense.

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One common story that I have observed over the years is that legal malpractice insurers frequently deny coverage on the basis that the attorney knew of his own error (or the possibility of a claim) prior to the policy period. The recently decided case, Synergy Law Group, LLC v. Ironshore Specialty Insurance Company, 2015 IL App (1st) 142070-U, is another unfortunate chapter in that story.

Legal malpractice policies are issued on a claims made basis. That means that the insurer agrees to cover any claims made during the policy period even if those claims result from an act that occurred before the policy period. However, the insurance policy always contains a clause that provides that there is no coverage if the Insured “had knowledge of the circumstances that gave rise to the Claim and reason to believe that a Claim might result” before the policy period.

In 2006, the attorney drafted a shareholders agreement for a company, GA, Inc. The agreement established a formula for repurchasing shares if either shareholder left the company. In 2008, Rena Zito, the minority (20%) shareholder left the company. GA exercised its option to repurchase her shares. GA offered the minority shareholder $56,335.47 for all of her shares. The minority shareholder responded that “under the formula established in the shareholders agreement, GA, Inc., owed [the minority shareholder] $56,335.47 per share” for a total of $1,126,707.40. Opinion ¶ 7.

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