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Liability insurance is a part of the general insurance system of risk financing to protect the purchaser (the "insured") from the risks of liabilities imposed by lawsuits and similar claims. It protects the insured in the event he or she is sued for claims that come within the coverage of the insurance policy. Originally, individuals or companies that faced a common peril, formed a group and created a self-help fund out of which to pay compensation should any member incur loss (in other words, a mutual insurance arrangement). The modern system relies on dedicated carriers, usually for-profit, to offer protection against specified perils in consideration of a premium. Liability insurance is designed to offer specific protection against third party insurance claims, i.e., payment is not typically made to the insured, but rather to someone suffering loss who is not a party to the insurance contract. In general, damage caused intentionally as well as contractual liability are not covered under liability insurance policies. When a claim is made, the insurance carrier has the duty (and right) to defend the insured. The legal costs of a defense normally do not affect policy limits unless the policy expressly states otherwise; this default rule is useful because defense costs tend to soar when cases go to trial.
- 1 What liability insurance provides
- 2 Types of liability insurance
- 3 General liability
- 4 Insurable risks
- 5 Evidentiary rules regarding liability insurance
- 6 Liability insurance and the technology industry
- 7 See also
- 8 References
What liability insurance provides
Liability insurers have two (or three, in some jurisdictions) major duties: 1) the duty to defend, 2) the duty to indemnify and (in some jurisdictions), 3) the duty to settle a reasonably clear claim.
- To defend
The duty to defend is triggered when the insured is sued and in turn "tenders" defense of the claim to its liability insurer. Usually this is done by sending a copy of the complaint along with a cover letter referencing the relevant insurance policy or policies and demanding an immediate defense. At this point, the insurer has three options, to:(1) seek a declaratory judgment of no coverage; (2) defend; or (3) refuse either to defend or to seek a declaratory judgment.
If a declaratory judgment is sought, the issue of the insurer's duty to defend will be resolved.
If the insurer decides to defend, it has thus either waived its defense of no coverage (later estopped), or it must defend under a reservation of rights. The latter means that the insurer reserves the right to withdraw from defending in the event that it turns out the claim is not covered, and to recover from the insured any funds expended to date.
If the insurer chooses to defend, it may either defend the claim with its own in-house lawyers (where allowed), or give the claim to an outside law firm on a "panel" of preferred firms which have negotiated a standard fee schedule with the insurer in exchange for a regular flow of work. The decision to defend under a reservation of rights must be undertaken with extreme caution in jurisdictions where the insured has a right to Cumis counsel.
The choice to do nothing can be very risky because a later determination that the duty applied often leads to the tort of bad faith. (So, insurers often prefer to defend under a reservation of rights rather than simply do nothing.)
- To indemnify
The duty to indemnify means the duty to pay "all sums" for which the insured is held liable, up to a set policy limit.
- To settle reasonable claims
In some jurisdictions, there is a third duty, the duty to settle a reasonably clear claim against the insured. The duty is of greatest import during situations in which the settlement demand equals or exceeds the policy limits. In that case, the insurer has an incentive not to settle, since if it settles, it will certainly pay the policy limit. But this interest is at odds with the interest of its insured. The company has incentive not to settle since if the case goes to trial, there are only two possibilities: its insured loses and insurer pays the policy limits (nothing gained nothing lost), or its insured wins, leaving the insurer with no liability. But, if the insurer refuses to settle, and the case goes to trial, the insured might be held liable for a sum far exceeding the settlement offer. In turn, the plaintiff might then attempt to recover the difference between the policy limits and the actual judgment by obtaining writs of attachment or execution against the insured's assets.
This is where the duty to settle comes in. To avoid endangering an insured to gain a remote possibility of avoiding paying on the policy, the duty to defend obligates the insurance company to settle reasonably clear claims. The standard judicial test is that an insurer must settle a claim if a reasonable insurer, notwithstanding any policy limits, would have settled the claim.
- Effects of breach
Occurrence v. claims-made policies
Traditionally, liability insurance was written on an occurrence basis, meaning that the insurer agreed to defend and indemnify against any loss which allegedly "occurred" as a result of an act or omission of the insured during the policy period. This was originally not a problem because it was thought that insureds' tort liability was predictably limited by doctrines like proximate cause and statutes of limitations. In other words, it was thought that no sane plaintiffs' lawyer would sue in 1978 for a tortious act that allegedly occurred in 1953, because the risk of dismissal was so obvious.
In the 1980s, a large number of major toxic tort scandals (primarily involving asbestos and diethylstilbestrol) resulted in numerous judicial decisions and statutes which radically extended the so-called "long tail" of potential liability chasing occurrence policies. The result was that insurers who had long-ago closed their books on policies written 20, 30, or 40 years earlier now found that their insureds were being hit with hundreds of thousands of lawsuits which implicated those old policies.
The insurance industry reacted in two ways to these developments. First, premiums on new occurrence policies skyrocketed, since the industry had learned the hard way to assume the worst as to those policies. Second, the industry began issuing claims-made policies, where the policy covers only those claims that are first "made" against the insured during the policy period. A related variation is the claims-made-and-reported policy, under which the policy covers only those claims that are first made against the insured and reported by the insured to the insurer during the policy period. (There is usually a 30-day grace period for reporting after the end of the policy period to protect insureds who are sued at the very end of the policy period.)
Claims-made policies enable insurers to again sharply limit their own long-term liability on each policy and in turn, to close their books on policies and record a profit. Hence, they are much more affordable than occurrence policies and are very popular for that reason. Of course, claims-made policies shift the burden to insureds to immediately report new claims to insurers. They also force insureds to become more proactive about risk management and finding ways to control their own long-tail liability.
Claims-made policies often include strict clauses that require insureds to report even potential claims and that combine an entire series of related acts into a single claim. This puts insureds to a Sophie's choice. They can timely report every "potential" claim (i.e., every slip-and-fall on their premises), even if those never ripen into actual lawsuits, and thereby protect their right to coverage, but at the expense of making themselves look more risky and driving up their own insurance premiums. Or they can wait until they actually get sued, but then they run the risk that the claim will be denied because it should have been reported back when the underlying accident first occurred.
Claims-made coverage also makes it harder for insureds to switch insurers, as well as to wind up and shut down their operations. It is possible to purchase "tail coverage" for such situations, but only at premiums much higher than for conventional claims-made policies, since the insurer is being asked to re-assume the kind of liabilities which claims-made policies were supposed to push to insureds to begin with.
Retained limits and SIRs
One way for businesses to cut down their liability insurance premiums is to negotiate a policy with a retained limit or self-insured retention (SIR), which is somewhat like a deductible. With such policies, the insured is essentially agreeing to self-insure and self-defend for smaller claims, and to tender only for liability claims that exceed a certain number. However, writing such insurance is itself risky for insurers. The California Courts of Appeal have held that primary insurers on policies with a SIR must still provide an "immediate, 'first dollar' defense" (subject, of course, to their right to later recover the SIR amount from the insured) unless the policy expressly imposes exhaustion of the SIR as a precondition to the duty to defend.
Types of liability insurance
In many countries, liability insurance is a compulsory form of insurance for those at risk of being sued by third parties for negligence. The most usual classes of mandatory policy cover the drivers of vehicles, those who offer professional services to the public, those who manufacture products that may be harmful, constructors and those who offer employment. The reason for such laws is that the classes of insured are deliberately engaging in activities that put others at risk of injury or loss. Public policy therefore requires that such individuals should carry insurance so that, if their activities do cause loss or damage to another, money will be available to pay compensation. In addition, there are a further range of perils that people insure against and, consequently, the number and range of liability policies has increased in line with the rise of contingency fee litigation offered by lawyers (sometimes on a class action basis). Such policies fall into three main classes:
Industry and commerce are based on a range of processes and activities that have the potential to affect third parties (members of the public, visitors, trespassers, sub-contractors, etc. who may be physically injured or whose property may be damaged or both). It varies from state to state as to whether either or both employer's liability insurance and public liability insurance have been made compulsory by law. Regardless of compulsion, however, most organizations include public liability insurance in their insurance portfolio even though the conditions, exclusions, and warranties included within the standard policies can be a burden. A company owning an industrial facility, for instance, may buy pollution insurance to cover lawsuits resulting from environmental accidents.
Many small businesses do not secure general or professional liability insurance due to the high cost of premiums. However, in the event of a claim, out-of-pocket costs for a legal defense or settlement can far exceed premium costs. In some cases, the costs of a claim could be enough to shut down a small business.
Businesses must consider all potential risk exposures when deciding whether liability insurance is needed, and, if so, how much coverage is appropriate and cost-effective. Those with the greatest public liability risk exposure are occupiers of premises where large numbers of third parties frequent at leisure including shopping centers, pubs, clubs, theaters, sporting venues, markets, hotels and resorts. The risk increases dramatically when consumption of alcohol and sporting events are included. Certain industries such as security and cleaning are considered high risk by underwriters. In some cases underwriters even refuse to insure the liability of these industries or choose to apply a large deductible in order to minimize the potential compensations. Private individuals also occupy land and engage in potentially dangerous activities. For example, a rotten branch may fall from an old tree and injure a pedestrian, and many people ride bicycles and skateboards in public places. The majority of states require motorists to carry insurance and criminalise those who drive without a valid policy. Many also require insurance companies to provide a default fund to offer compensation to those physically injured in accidents where the driver did not have a valid policy.
Product liability insurance is not a compulsory class of insurance in all countries, but legislation such as the UK Consumer Protection Act 1987 and the EC Directive on Product Liability (25/7/85) require those manufacturing or supplying goods to carry some form of product liability insurance, usually as part of a combined liability policy. The scale of potential liability is illustrated by cases such as those involving Mercedes-Benz for unstable vehicles and Perrier for benzene contamination, but the full list covers pharmaceuticals and medical devices, asbestos, tobacco, recreational equipment, mechanical and electrical products, chemicals and pesticides, agricultural products and equipment, food contamination, and all other major product classes.
New policies have been developed to cover any liability that might be imposed on an employer if an employee is injured in the course of his or her employment. In many states in the US, the insurers are prohibited from including conditions within their policies that seek to impose any unreasonable conditions precedent to liability, or require the insured either to take reasonable precautions or to comply with current legislation and regulations. In those countries where such insurance is not compulsory, smaller organizations are often driven into bankruptcy when faced by claims not covered by insurance.
Note that in the United Kingdom Employers Liability Insurance is compulsory, unless the only employee is the owner of the company (who holds at least 50% of the shares) or the business is a family business which is not incorporated as a limited company. Workers' Compensation insurance in the United States is usually compulsory unless the employer can demonstrate the capability to self-insure by demonstrating sufficient financial capacity and risk management capabilities. Employers that self-insure may carry excess insurance for occurrences that generate unacceptably large losses for the employer.
Workers' compensation in the United States in most states operates through administrative adjudication outside of the federal and state courts; in turn, workers' comp insurance is regulated and underwritten separately from liability insurance. That is, separate policy forms are generated to underwrite Commercial General Liability policy Workers' Compensation. Since 1971 ISO has assisted the insurance industry in developing policy forms for Commercial General Liability. The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) and various state rating bureaus provide similar support for Workers' Compensation.
In the 1980s, the standard CGL forms were revised to exclude coverage for torts related to the employer-employee relationship like racial or gender discrimination in the workplace, as well as liability for negligent supervision of midlevel managers who committed such torts. However, it soon became obvious that employers were anxious to find some kind of liability coverage for such torts, which resulted in the development of Employment Practices Liability (EPL) insurance.
Many of the public and product liability risks are often covered together under a general liability policy. These risks may include bodily injury or property damage caused by direct or indirect actions of the insured.
In the United States, general liability insurance coverage most often appears in the Commercial General Liability policies obtained by businesses, and in homeowners' insurance policies obtained by individual homeowners.
Generally, liability insurance covers only the risk of being sued for negligence or strict liability torts, but not any tort or crime with a higher level of mens rea. This is usually mandated either by the policy language itself or case law or statutes in the jurisdiction where the insured resides or does business.
In other words, liability insurance does not protect against liability resulting from crimes or intentional torts committed by the insured. This is intended to prevent criminals, particularly organized crime, from obtaining liability insurance to cover the costs of defending themselves in criminal actions brought by the state or civil actions brought by their victims. A contrary rule would encourage the commission of crime, and allow insurance companies to indirectly profit from it, by allowing criminals to insure themselves from adverse consequences of their own actions.
It should be noted that crime is not uninsurable per se. In contrast to liability insurance, it is possible to obtain loss insurance to compensate one's losses as the victim of a crime.
Evidentiary rules regarding liability insurance
In the United States, most states make only the carrying of auto insurance mandatory. Where the carrying of a policy is not mandatory and a third party makes a claim for injuries suffered, evidence that a party has liability insurance is generally inadmissible in a lawsuit on public policy grounds, because the courts do not want to discourage parties from carrying such insurance. There are two exceptions to this rule:
- If the owner of the insurance policy disputes ownership or control of the property, evidence of liability insurance can be introduced to show that it is likely that the owner of the policy probably does own or control the property.
- If a witness has an interest in the policy that gives the witness a motive or bias with respect to specific testimony, the existence of the policy can be introduced to show this motive or bias. Federal rules of civil procedure rule 26 was amended in 1993 to require that any insurance policy that may pay or may reimburse be made available for photocopying by the opposing litigants, although the policies are not normally information given to the jury. Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure rule 46 says that an appeal can be dismissed or affirmed if counsel does not update their notice of appearance to acknowledge insurance. The Cornell University Legal Institute web site includes congressional notes.
Liability insurance and the technology industry
Because technology companies represent a relatively new industry that deals largely with intangible yet highly valuable data, some definitions of legal liability may still be evolving in this field. Technology firms must carefully read and fully understand their policy limits to ensure coverage of all potential risks inherent in their work.
Typically, professional liability insurance protects technology firms from litigation resulting from charges of professional negligence or failure to perform professional duties. Covered incidents may include errors and omissions that result in the loss of client data, software or system failure, claims of non-performance, negligent overselling of services, contents of a forum post or email of an employee that are incorrect or cause harm to a reputation, getting rid of office equipment such as fax machines without properly clearing their internal memory, or failing to notify customers that their private data has been breached. For example, some client companies have won large settlements after technology subcontractors’ actions resulted in the loss of irreplaceable data. Professional liability insurance would generally cover such settlements and legal defense, within policy limits.
Additionally, client contracts often require technology subcontractors working on-site to provide proof of general liability and professional liability insurance.
- Woodall, Jon A.; McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie and Kirkland, PLLC (April 29, 2013). "The State of Commercial General Liability Insurance Coverage for Defective Construction". The National Law Review. Retrieved 6 May 2013.
- Legacy Vulcan Corp. v. Superior Court, __ Cal. App. 4th __ (June 11, 2010, No. B215713).
- "Employers’ Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act 1969 - A guide for employers". Health and Safety Executive(HSE), United Kingdom. November 2008. Retrieved 2010-01-27.