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Policy provisions preclude coverage in settlement of class claims

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Because the “voluntary payment” and “legally obligated to pay” provisions precluded coverage, a trial court properly entered partial judgment in favor of an insurer of a distillery involved in a settlement over damages caused to nearby buildings by the distillation process.

Pernod Ricard USA operated the Seagram Lawrenceburg Distillery, which became embroiled in a class-action lawsuit with neighboring property owners, including William Klepper, over damages caused by ethanol released in the air, which made mold grow on building exteriors. The property owners also alleged nuisance, negligence, trespass and illegal dumping.

Pernod was insured by XL Insurance America and by ACE American Insurance under a commercial general liability policy. ACE’s policy included a “legally obligated to pay” provision and a “voluntary payment” provision, which said no insured should voluntarily make a payment, assume obligation or incur any expense without ACE’s consent.

ACE initially did not contribute to Pernod’s defense, but later reimbursed XL for costs. The property owners, XL and ACE entered into settlement negotiations, but ACE declined to contribute $1 million toward a settlement, offering only $250.000. At a second mediation attempt, ACE left before it was over. XL and Pernod agreed a $5.2 million judgment would be entered against the distillery, with Pernod contributing $1.2 million, XL contributing $1 million and ACE contributing the remaining $3 million under the insurance policy.

Eventually the case made it to a special master, who concluded the “legally obligated to pay” and “voluntary payment” defenses were available to ACE because it provided a defense under a reservation of rights. The special master also found Pernod breached its obligation by entering the agreed judgment without the consent of ACE. The trial court declined to enter a final judgment on all issues, only the six ruled on by the special master.

The Court of Appeals unanimously held that ACE did not abandon Pernod or breach the policy.

“ACE may rely on the Policy’s ‘voluntary payment’ and ‘legally obligated to pay’ provisions, and those provisions preclude coverage under the Policy. To hold otherwise, would, effectively require us to write the ‘voluntary payment’ and ‘legally obligated to pay’ provisions out of the Policy, which we cannot do. We recognize and understand the dissent’s concerns. We simply believe that the rationale in (American Family Mutual Insurance co. v. C.M.A. Mortgage Inc.), the fact that ACE did not abandon Pernod or breach the Policy, and the extended analysis we have provided guide us to this result,” Judge Michael Barnes wrote in William Klepper, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated v. Ace American Insurance Company, 15A05-1212-CC-645.

Judge Terry Crone disagreed with the majority that ACE may avoid the settlement agreement based on the “voluntary payment” and “legally obligated to pay” provisions.

“An insurer who defends an insured under a reservation of rights should not be able to use those policy provisions as both a shield and a sword,” he wrote. “Courts should not reward insurers for putting their insureds in a perilous position, nor should they penalize insureds for trying to protect themselves.”
 

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