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Court of Appeals Reiterates Insurer’s Obligation to Protect Policyholder From Lawsuit

Posted Thursday, August 16, 2018 by McKean J. Evans

When a driver crashes into another vehicle and is sued for damages, the driver’s insurer typically has an obligation to defend the lawsuit and act in good faith to protect its insured’s interests. When the insurer fails to do so, the driver likely has legal recourse under Washington law.

Washington’s Court of Appeals recently reiterated this principle in Singh v. Zurich American Insurance Company. In Singh, the Court of Appeals ruled Singh’s insurer, Zurich American, was liable for failing to settle and defend claims against Singh in good faith.

On July 20, 2011, one of Singh’s employees, driving Singh’s semitruck, allegedly caused a 16-vehicle crash by failing to slow down for congested traffic. Persons injured in the crash, and the families of those killed in the crash, sued Sing for damages. Because of the dramatic injuries and deaths allegedly caused by Sing’s employee, the plaintiffs quickly advised Singh that they saw their damages recoverable from Singh as exceeding the limits of Sing’s insurance policy. In other words, Singh knew that, if he lost the court case, he would have to pay significantly more money than his Zurich American insurance policy would cover.

Singh’s insurance policy with Zurich American obligated Zurich American to defend Singh in the lawsuit. Zurich hired a lawyer to defend Singh. Zurich’s lawyer recognized it was in Singh’s best interests to pay the entire insurance policy limit to settle the large monetary demands of the persons injured and killed in the crash. But the attorney also recognized that disbursing the entire policy limit to the first plaintiffs to sue Singh would leave Singh without insurance coverage should later claimants seek damages from Singh.

Accordingly, Zurich’s lawyer proposed to reserve some of Singh’s policy limits to protect Singh from future claims arising from the crash. However, Zurich ignored its lawyer’s advice and ordered the lawyer to settle the existing claims with the full policy limits. Zurich’s lawyer did so.

Later, another person sued Sing claiming injuries in the crash. Zurich refused to defend the lawsuit because Singh’s policy limits were exhausted from the prior settlement. Singh paid for his own counsel and ultimately paid $250,000.00 to settle the new claims.

Singh then filed suit against Zurich alleging Zurich acted in bad faith and violated Washington’s Insurance Fair Conduct Act (“IFCA”) and Consumer Protection Act (“CPA”). The jury found in Singh’s favor, agreeing Zurich breached Singh’s insurance policy and acted in bad faith.

The Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s verdict. The court observed the insurer’s duty to defend the insured “is one of the main benefits of the insurance contract.” Thus, the court determined Zurich could not permissibly exhaust the policy limits then use its exhaustion of the policy limits as an excuse to continue defending Singh. Doing so put Zurich’s interests over Singh’s in violation of the insurance policy and Washington law. Notably, Zurich ignored its own lawyer’s suggestion it keep some policy limits in reserve to protect Singh from future claims.

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