In a new decision that has generated some interest nationally, the Washington Court of Appeals held November 12, 2013 that if an excess policy’s attachment language is sufficiently restrictive, the excess policy will not be triggered unless the primary carrier actually pays the full amount of its limits. In this case, Quellos Group LLC v. Federal Insurance and others, the insured financial advisory firm was called on the carpet by federal regulators for shady tax shelter schemes. As often happens in such regulatory-type cases, involving disgorgement, fines, damages, and injunctive relief, there were many question about what the primary layer policy would actually cover. Quellos and its primary-layer carriers settled those coverage disputes with the primary carriers paying Quellos less than full policy limits. So far, so good. Quellos then paid the difference between what the primary carriers paid and the primary limits, therefore reaching the “attachment point” for the excess layer policies.
Not so fast, said the Court of Appeals. The Federal excess policy stated that coverage “shall attach only after the insurers of the Underlying Insurance shall have paid in legal currency the full amount of the Underlying Limit.” The Indian Harbor policy stated that coverage “will attach only after all of the Underlying Insurance has been exhausted by the actual payment of loss by the applicable insurers thereunder.” The court read these provisions as literally requiring, as a pre-condition to any coverage, that the primary carrier itself pay the the full limits. The court rejected Quellos’ argument that these provisions should function like many of the other “conditions of coverage” that aren’t really conditions at all, but are treated more like exclusions, where the carrier has the burden of showing that it was prejudiced in some way by the insured’s failure to comply with the condition. The court also rejected Quellos’ public-policy argument, noting that there are policy forms available that allow the insured to do just what Quellos tried to do in triggering excess coverage.
From the policyholder’s perspective this decision is bad news, and it is not in keeping with the general trend (with many exceptions) in Washington law to tackle coverage questions from a practical, policyholder-oriented perspective. These excess carriers contracted to provide coverage only if a certain amount of liability was assessed and paid out. What in the world does it matter to them who pays the underlying limit? Unfortunately this decision is joining a trend in the case law nationally on this issue that is against policyholders. Hopefully the Washington Supreme Court will accept review and overturn the decision.