As I have noted in prior posts (most recently here), due to increasing average claims severity and escalating defense expense, excess D & O insurance is an increasingly important factor in the resolution of claims involving directors and officers of public companies. The greater involvement of excess D & O insurance has also meant an increasing number of claims disputes involving excess D & O insurers.

A recurring issue has been the question of the excess carrier’s obligations when the primary carrier has paid less than its full policy limits as a result of a compromise with the primary carrier. A March 25, 2008 opinion (here) by California’s intermediate appellate court held, that given the policy language involved, an excess D & O insurance policy was not triggered where the underlying insurer neither paid nor was obligated to pay its full policy limit of liability.

For the policy period March 15, 1999 through March 15, 2000, Qualcomm had $40 million of D & O insurance, structured with a primary layer of $20 million and an excess “follow form” layer of $20 million above the primary $20 million. During the policy period, Qualcomm employees and former employees brought lawsuits asserting rights to unvested company stock options. Qualcomm later settled these lawsuits and sought reimbursement from its D & O insurers for its defense expense and the settlement amounts.

Qualcomm ultimately reached a compromise with its primary D & O insurer, whereby Qualcomm gave the primary insurer a full policy release in exchange for the primary carrier’s payment of $16 million. Even with this $16 million payment, however, Qualcomm still had unreimbursed defense expense of $3.6 million and also had an additional unreimbursed $9 million in settlement expense.

In October 2006, Qualcomm sued its excess D & O insurer for breach of contract and declaratory relief, seeking compensatory damages as well as a judicial declaration that the excess carrier was obligated to indemnify Qualcomm for more than $9 million in unreimbursed expenses. The excess carrier contended, among other things, that the underlying policy had not been “exhausted” as required by the excess policy. The excess policy’s exhaustion clause provided that the excess carrier “shall be liable only after the insurers under each of the Underlying policies have paid or have been held liable to pay the full amount of the Underlying Limit of Liability.”

The trial court sustained the excess carrier’s demurrer (in effect, granted the carrier’s motion to dimiss) without leave to amend on the grounds that the excess policy had not been triggered, and Qualcomm appealed.

On appeal, Qualcomm argued that an excess carrier was liable for losses exceeding the actual limits of underlying primary insurance, even where the primary carrier settled for less than the actual policy limit. Qualcomm also argued that denying excess coverage in the circumstances presented would be contrary to public policy because such a denial would work a forfeiture, provide a windfall to the excess carrier, and encourage litigation by discouraging settlement.

The court of appeals declined “to reach a broad holding on public policy considerations” and instead concluded that “the literal policy language in this case governs.” The court said that the excess policy was not triggered because Qualcomm’s pleadings “establish that the primary insurer neither paid the ‘full amount’ of the liability limit nor had it become legally obligated to pay the full amount of the primary limit.” The court said that

the exhaustion clause here compels us to conclude that the parties expressly agreed that [the primary carrier] was required to pay (or be legally obligated to pay) no less than $20 million as a condition of [the excess carrier’s] liability. Because [the primary carrier] did not so pay, [the excess carrier’s obligations] did not arise.

The Qualcomm decision is consistent with the 2007 decision in the Comerica case, about which I wrote here, and which the Qualcomm court said presented “factual circumstances almost identical to those present in this case." This developing line of case authority has important implications both for the claims resolution and for the insurance acquisition processes.

Let me say at the outset that I am not attempting to criticize the position taken by the excess carrier in the Qualcomm case. Given the court’s ruling, it would be difficult to suggest that the carrier’s legal position was not well founded, and I do not propose to do so here.

In general, however, a claims outcome where a policyholder is stuck with millions of dollars of unexpectedly uninsured claims, after having funded a coverage gap as a result of a compromise with the primary insurer, and after having paid substantial insurance premiums, is highly undesirable from the policyholder’s perspective. Indeed, everyone involved in the D & O insurance industry, including ultimately even excess D & O insurers, has an interest in avoiding claims outcomes where policyholders gets “stuck,” as the value component of the insurance equation—the very thing that insurers’ sell – depends on the policyholders’ not getting “stuck.”

By the same token, the industry could be doing its customers and itself a service by keeping track of claims activity that produces adverse policyholder outcomes, whether it is a primary carrier that is hotboxing the policyholder into making a compromise or an excess carrier that is refusing to play along. Our industry could be improved were it to keep track of the carriers whose claims decisions result in policyholders getting “stuck” – by keeping track the industry might ensure that claims decisions involve not only detached legal analysis but also due consideration of the concrete business assumptions on which our industry ultimately depends.

At a minimum, it is increasingly clear that policyholders should consider only global compromises, involving all insurers, as any other arrangement could leave the policyholder exposed.

The Qualcomm decision has lessons for the policy acquisition process as well. The outcome in the Qualcomm case was a direct reflection of the excess policy’s exhaustion trigger language. While alternative language was not generally available at the time Qualcomm placed the D & O program involved in that case, many excess D & O carriers now offer exhaustion trigger language that reduces the restrictions on the kinds of payments that could trigger the excess carrier’s payment obligation. Indeed, many policies recognize payment by the policyholder as satisfying the underlying limit. The need for these issues to be address in the insurance placement process underscores the need to have skilled insurance professionals involved in the D & O insurance acquisition process.

Special thanks to John McCarrick of the Edward Angell Palmer & Dodge law firm for providing me with a copy of the Qualcomm decision. I should add that the views expressed in this post are solely my own.