Deteriorating economic conditions threaten a massive wave of corporate defaults. Corporate borrowers’ inability to fulfill debt obligations not only could prompt a bankruptcy filing surge, but also could result in a flood of ensuing lawsuits and claims as creditors and shareholders seek to recoup their losses. These claims could present a host of challenging D&O coverage issues.


The Growing Default Threat

According to a February 13, 2009 Wall Street Journal article entitled "Wave of Bad Debt Swamps Companies" (here), "the U.S. is entering a period likely to feature the most corporate-debt defaults, by dollar amount, in history." The article reports estimates that "U.S. companies are poised to default on $450 billion to $500 billion in corporate bonds and bank loans over the next two years."


In percentage terms, the default rate could "approach levels last seen in 1933." High yield default rates peaked around 15% in 1930. The Journal reports that S&P estimates that default rates will hit 13.9% this year "but could go as high as 18.5% if the downturn is worse than expected."


The "growing wave of souring debt" has already resulting in rising numbers of bankruptcies, including, just in the last few days, Muzak Holdings LLC; Pliant Corp.; Aleris International; and Midway Games.


However, as the Journal article observes, corporate defaults do not always result in Chapter 11 filings. Borrowers are sometimes able to restructure their debt outside of bankruptcy, and sometimes give creditors ownership stakes in exchange for reducing or elimination debt.


The Risk of Increased Numbers of Claims

In addition to the possibility of a growing number of bankruptcies, the prospect of surging corporate defaults also raises the possibility of an upsurge in claims against the directors and officers of the struggling or bankrupt companies.


Companies whose financial stability is deteriorating may as one consequence of their struggles get hit with a "going concern" opinion from their auditor. As the securities lawsuit filed against NextWave Wireless illustrates, the question whether a company can continue as a going concern alone can become an allegation in a shareholders’ class action complaint.


Claims may arise even when companies attempt a work out to try to avoid bankruptcy. These claims can come from shareholders, who may content that the workout resulted in a dilution of their interests, or it can even come from other bondholders, who may claim that their interests have been harmed or improperly subordinated, as demonstrated in the recent Station Casino bondholder claim (complaint here). Bondholders also recently filed a similar lawsuit against Harrah’s Entertainment and certain of its directors and officers (refer here).


But a bankruptcy filing is particularly likely to be followed by claims against the bankrupt company’s directors and officers. These claims can come in the form of securities lawsuits brought against the individuals by the bankrupt company’s shareholders, as reflected for example in the recent cases filed against Pilgrim Pride’s corporate officials (refer here); against Britannia Bulk’s senior officers (here); or against the directors and officers of Charys Holding Company (here).


In addition, the Trustee in bankruptcy may also assert claims against the company’s directors and officers, as evidenced in the now infamous Just for Feet claim (about which refer here). As the Just for Feet bankruptcy also demonstrates, these various claims can arise simultaneously, which presents its own set of issues.


The Potential Coverage Issues

The advent of claims following bankruptcy presents a number of challenges in the context of any potentially applicable directors and officers’ liability insurance. Some of these challenges are a reflection of the size and structure of the insurance program; other challenges arise from the nature and extent of the coverage afforded.


With respect to the overall program, one critically important issue may simply be the amount of insurance available. The prospect for multiple simultaneous claims is increased dramatically when a company files for bankruptcy. The simultaneous prosecution of multiple claims presents the very real possibility that the insurance could be substantially depleted or even entirely exhausted. As demonstrated in the claims surrounding the Collins & Aikman bankruptcy (about which refer here), defense costs alone potentially could deplete the available limits.


And as demonstrated in connection with the multiple claims filed against the directors and officers of Just for Feet following that company’s bankruptcy, the proceeds of a traditional D&O insurance program alone may be insufficient to resolve all claims that can arise in the bankruptcy context. Both the Collins & Aikman and the Just for Feet examples have important implications for policy structure, as discussed below.


The interplay between the provisions of the Bankruptcy Code and the terms and conditions of the D&O policy may present certain specific challenges. As I discussed at greater length in a prior post (here), a recurring issue since so-called "entity coverage" has become a standard part of the D&O policy has been whether or not the D&O policy proceeds are property of the bankrupt estate under Bankruptcy Code Section 541(a) and subject to the automatic stay in bankruptcy under Bankruptcy Code Section 362.


A particularly good article discussing these questions regarding the D&O policy proceeds and the operation of the bankruptcy stay written by my good friend Kim Melvin of the Wiley Rein law firm can be found here.


Another frequently recurring D&O insurance coverage issue arising in the bankruptcy context is whether claims asserted by the Trustee or other receivers or liquidators against the company’s directors or officers funs afoul of the policy’s exclusion for claims brought by one insured against another insured. The "insured vs. insured" issue arises because of the concern that the Trustee or other claimant is "standing in the shoes" of a policy insured, the company itself.


Addressing the Insurance Concerns

A number of policy solutions to these recurring bankruptcy issues have developed in recent years. For example, a coverage carve-back to the insured vs. insured exclusion, now a standard provision in most policies, has continued to evolve over the years to address concerns about coverage for claims brought by Trustees and others.


In addition, many policies now contain "priority of payments" provisions as a way to try to address questions surrounding the availability of the D&O policy’s proceeds for the payment of defense expense or the resolution of claims notwithstanding the bankruptcy stay.


Perhaps even more importantly, to address concerns about the susceptibility of the policy proceeds to depletion or exhaustion from multiple simultaneous claims, particularly in the bankruptcy context, the D&O industry has developed a number of structural solutions designed to ensure that whatever may happen, a fund of money will remain available for specified individuals so they can defend and resolve claims against them. These structures might take any one of a number of forms, including a so-called Side A/DIC policy, or even an individual director liability (IDL) policy.


The complexity of these coverage and structural issues underscores the need to involve a skilled insurance professional in the D&O insurance acquisition process. Financial troubled companies in particular require the contributions of an informed and experienced advocate in structuring their coverage. The structure and the terms and conditions of a company’s insurance program could determine whether or not insurance coverage is available for individual directors and officers in the event of bankruptcy and related claims.


One final note about the likelihood of increasing corporate defaults. That is, the current deteriorating economic conditions not only present challenges for insurance buyers, they also present serious concerns for D&O underwriters. As the Journal article cited above notes, the defaults "will likely spread across many industries." Among the industries the article specifically mentions are "media, entertainment, casino and hotel companies, car makers and retailers."


Up to this point, the most significant consequences of the credit crisis have been concentrated in the financial sector. D&O underwriters have had the ability to segment risk arising from the credit crisis according to whether or not companies were financially related. However, with the growing threat of corporate defaults across many industry sectors, risk segmentation will be much more challenging. At a minimum, it will no longer be sufficient for underwriters to presume that risk is limited to the financial sector alone.