A June 18, 2008 opinion (here) by Judge Gerald Lynch in the coverage litigation between former Refco directors and officers and one of the company’s excess D&O insurers presents a veritable conflagration of policy application issues, including perennial questions concerning warranties, severability, and imputation, as well as a host of related issues arising from the policy procurement process itself.
Background: In the year preceding Refco’s ill-fated August 2005 IPO, Refco had maintained a $30 million D&O liability insurance program (the 2004-2005 program). In connection with its IPO, Refco obtained a total of $70 million of D&O insurance for the period from August 11, 2005 to August 11, 2006 (the 2005-2006 program). Both programs were arranged in multiple layers, with a primary carrier and several excess carriers.
In connection with placement of the 2004-2005 program, Refco completed the primary carrier’s insurance application (the “Application”). In addition, one of the excess insurers (and the ultimate litigant in the coverage dispute) required that the company submit a Warranty Letter on behalf of all insureds, affirming that no person for whom the insurance was proposed is “cognizant of any fact, circumstance, situation, act, error or omissions which … might afford grounds for any Claim.”
The Warranty Letter, submitted to the excess carrier on January 21, 2005, was signed by Phillip Bennett, Refco’s CEO. It later was revealed that Refco had an undisclosed $430 million receivable due from an entity Bennett controlled. The company subsequently collapsed, and Bennett, among other has pled guilty to an array of criminal offenses.
At least as appears from the June 18 opinion, there were no additional applications or warranties in connection with the placement of the 2005-2006 program.
Following Refco’s October 2005 collapse, the company’s directors and officers were the target of extensive litigation, for which they sought defense expense coverage under the 2005-2006 program. The primary and first layer excess carriers advanced their entire limits (totaling $17.5 million) in payment of defense expense, subject to repayment of it is determined that there is no coverage under the policies.
The Coverage Denial:
The second level excess insurer, by letter dated March 6, 2006, denied coverage for the claims under its 2005-2006 policies. As the basis for its denial, the second level excess insurer relied on the representations in the Warranty letter and Refco’s failure to answer question 12(b) on the primary carrier’s Application (which asked whether any proposed insured was “aware of any fact, circumstance or situation” that might give rise to a claim).
The second level excess insurer also relied on a “Knowledge Exclusion” that was included in the insurer’s policy when issued in March 2006 (which was at or about the same time as the insurer issue its coverage denial). The Knowledge Exclusion essentially provides that the second level excess insurer is not liable for any loss (including defense expense) “in connection with any claim arising out of, based upon or attributable to any claim, fact or circumstance disclosed or required to be disclosed” in Question 12(b) of the Application.
The Coverage Litigation:
In May 2007, the second level excess insurer initiated an adversary proceeding in bankruptcy court seeking a judicial declaration of noncoverage under its 2005-2006 policy, largely for reasons enumerated in its March 2006 denial letter. Several of the individual Refco officers and directors filed an answer and counterclaim, among other things seeking an injunction compelling the second level insurer to advance defense fees. The bankruptcy court entered an order in October 2007 requiring the insurer to advance defense expense, which the insurer has now done, as a result of which its $10 million limit is now depleted.
The second level excess carrier refilled its declaratory judgment complaint in federal district court, again seeking a judicial declaration of noncoverage. The individuals refilled their counterclaims, seeking a determination of coverage. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, which were the subject of the June 18 opinion.
The June 18 Opinion
In reviewing the court’s rulings, it is important to note that the summary judgment motions were filed pre-discovery. This unusual procedural posture was a critical factor in the court’s decisions process, as the court, pursuant to established authority, was reluctant to interject merits-based rulings where further discovery might provide additional factual context.
The insureds argued that the Warranty Letter had been submitted in connection with the placement of the 2004-2005 program and therefore was not a part of the second level carrier’s 2005-2006 policy. The insurer for its part argued that the Warranty Letter did relate to the placement of the 2005-2006 policy and that in any event it relied on the Warranty Letter when making underwriting decisions in connection with the 2005-2006 policy. The insurer submitted an affidavit from its underwriter in support of its assertions. Judge Lynch concluded that “genuine issues of material fact abound as to whether the Warranty Letter is properly part of the 2005-2006 [policy].”
The insureds further argued that in any event, the applicable “severability provision” bars the insurer from imputing Bennett’s knowledge to the other insureds and therefore the Warranty Letter could not serve as a basis to deny coverage to them. The severability provision was contained in an Endorsement to the Primary Policy. The insurer argued that the severability provision restricted the imputation of knowledge exclusively to statements in the primary insurer’s Application, and therefore it had no bearing on the second level excess insurer’s ability to rely on the Warranty Letter, which was not part of the Application. Judge Lynch agreed, and he therefore denied the insureds’ summary judgment motion based on the application severability provision.
Judge Lynch similarly rejected the second level excess insurer’s attempt to rely on Bennett’s failure Question 12(b) on the Application. Judge Lynch found that the insurer’s issuance of its 2005-2006 policy without challenging the omission of an answer to Question 12(b) was a waiver of any objection to coverage on that basis.
With respect to the second level excess carrier’s attempt to rely on the so-called Knowledge Exclusion to deny coverage, the insureds argued that the insurer’s coverage binder had not listed the Knowledge Exclusion as an endorsement that was to be added to the policy, nor had the company’s broker authorized the addition of the Knowledge Exclusion. The insureds argued that the insurer had “unilaterally changed the terms of the 2005-2006 [policy] after learning of the events that would give rise to a claim.”
The insurer countered that the company’s broker had authorized the addition of the exclusion. The insureds contended this response “fundamentally misconstrues” the meaning of the broker’s communications. These arguments clearly reflect the detailed particulars and disputed meaning of communications between the broker and the underwriter, which Judge Lynch found suffices to raise a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment on the issue.
The insureds further arged that the severability of exclusions language in the primary policy precluded application of the Knowledge Exclusion to them. They argued that even if Bennett’s knowledge triggered the exclusion, the excluded state of mind could not be imputed to them. Judge Lynch found that the severability of exclusions provision in the primary policy applied only to the exclusions in the primary policy, and not to the Knowledge Exclusion which was found only in the second level excess insurer’s policy.
The court’s opinion does not represent a definitive conclusion either for or against coverage under the policy. Indeed, at its most basic level, the court’s opinion merely represents a determination to allow discovery as a prelude to a later merits-based determination.
But the opinion raises too many questions about the potential availability to insurers of coverage defenses, and about the limitations of insureds’ policy protections, for the opinion not to raise a host of concerns. The concerns fall into two basic categories – that is, the concerns that are substantive and the concerns that are procedural.
The substantive concerns are numerous and relate to many of highest profile issues in the D&O insurance arena, including the use, applicability and duration of warranties and warranty letters; the extent of protection afforded to “innocent insureds” by severability provisions (including both application severability and exclusion severability); and the extent to which insureds may (or may not) be able rely on policy protections in the primary policy to preclude the assertion of policy defenses by an excess insurer.
The procedural concerns are perhaps equally significant for practitioners in the field. Judge Lynch’s opinion underscores the potential importance of communications between broker and underwriter and is a reminder of the opportunities for and dangers of ambiguities in communications (or, as the insureds would argue, supposed ambiguities). Perhaps these issues will get sorted out in later decisions in the case, but current state of play in the case raises troubling concerns about the pitfalls of the policy procurement process while providing little guidance (except by negative inference) about how those pitfalls might be avoided in the future.
There may yet be further ruling in the case that will clarify the issues. But the opinion nevertheless highlights that many of the issues the industry has been struggling with for the last decade – including in particular severability and imputation issues – remain very much alive and continue to pose significant concerns, and indeed may have edges that have not previously been addressed or even contemplated.
Two final observations about the case. The first is that the parties appear to have exhausted at least $27.5 million of the $70 million tower on defense expense alone, which is yet another reminder of the extraordinary expense involved in catastrophic type claims (a topic I discussed in a recent post, here).
The other observation is that yet again a critical D&O coverage decision has arisen in a case involving defenses raised by a follow-form excess insurer (see my prior comments on this issue here). The issues involved here underscore the myriad of difficulties that potentially can arise as losses escalate through a multilayer program. I do not mean to suggest any views one way or the other about the merits of the excess carrier’s positions in this case. Indeed, given the circumstances involved in this claim, it is unsurprising that the insurers might raise questions. Nevertheless, the specific issues in dispute suggest a level of flex in the interplay between the primary and excess layers that many policyholders would find disconcerting.
Special thanks to Michael Early for sending along a copy of the opinion. I hasten to add that the views and opinions expressed in this post are exclusively my own.
My recent post discussing whether Phillip Bennett’s use of the D&O insurance proceeds was an appropriate factor in his criminal sentencing can be found here. My prior post regarding the D&O insurance implications of Bennett’s cooperation with the class action plaintiffs can be found here.
What Awaits Those Who Spurn Berkshire: A June 25, 2008 Bloomberg article (here) reports that while recently addressing a group of Toronto business executives, Warren Buffett was asked what makes people want to sell their companies to Berkshire. Buffett reportedly said that he tells a prospective seller to think of their company as a work of art:
You can sell it to Berkshire and we’ll put it in the Metropolitan Museum; it’ll have a wing all by itself; it’ll be there forever. Or you can sell it to some porn shop operator, and he’ll take the painting and he’ll make the boobs a little bigger and he’ll stick it in the window, and some other guy will come along in a raincoat, and he’ll buy it.
And Finally: If you have not yet seen this amazing catch by the Fresno Grizzlies’ ball girl, you have to watch this video. It is truly marvelous. [UPDATE: I have to add that a reader advised me that the video may be a hoax, refer here — alas. It is still an awsome video.]