Liability

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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.

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.

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" defence 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 defence. 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.

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

An insurer who breaches any of these three duties may be held liable for the tort of insurance bad faith in addition to breach of contract.

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.

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. 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.

Types of liability insurance

The most usual classes of mandatory policy cover the drivers of vehicles, those who offer professional products 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 Liability 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:

  • Public liability
  • Product Liability
  • Employers Liability
  • Commercial General Liability
  • Third party Liability