THE ROLE OF BAD FAITH IN AN EQUITABLE SUBROGATION CASE (Third Circuit – Pennsylvania Law)
In this case, the Third Circuit addresses the elements of equitable subrogation between insurers, a useful opinion for coverage counsel dealing with insurer vs. insurer disputes. Here, we only mention the role bad faith played in the court’s analysis.
This case involves the tragic Salvation Army building collapse in Philadelphia, where six people died and thirteen others were injured. The neighboring property owner had hired a contractor to do construction work on its property. The improperly carried out work ultimately caused the building to collapse onto the neighboring Salvation Army building.
The property owner had a commercial general liability (CGL) policy on which it was a named insured. The contractor also had its own insurance policy. This policy appeared to provide coverage to the property owner as an additional insured.
Over time, the CGL carrier, through counsel, repeatedly demanded that the contractor’s insurer provide a defense to the property owner as an additional insured. The CGL carrier stated in one communication that a defense was due to the property owner as an additional insured, and that failure to provide such a defense was bad faith.
The contractor’s carrier eventually agreed to provide a defense to the property owner as an additional insured, under a reservation of rights. Eventually, the additional insured carrier withdrew its defense, and obtained a judgment rescinding its policy based on material misrepresentations the contractor made in the insurance application.
A court eventually found the contractor’s policy void ab initio. The contractor’s carrier, however, already had paid over $667,000 in defense costs for the property owner as an additional insured. The additional insurer brought the present claims for equitable subrogation and unjust enrichment against the property owner’s CGL carrier.
The district court rule in favor of the additional insurer, and had awarded almost all of the damages sought. The Third Circuit affirmed.
On the bad faith related issues, the Third Circuit found the following.
First, an insurer seeking equitable subrogation against another insurer has to show that in providing a defense and coverage, it acted to protect its own interest, and that it did not act as a volunteer. In this case, while the contractor’s insurer might have believed the policy should have been rescinded, it did not have any judgment to that effect. Moreover, it had been threatened with a bad faith claim by the CGL carrier’s counsel. The Third Circuit found this sufficient to establish that the contractor’s carrier acted in its own interest, and not as a volunteer, in providing a defense.
Second, the CGL carrier argued that the contractor’s carrier had unclean hands, and therefore could not obtain equitable relief. The Third Circuit rejected this argument. The panel observed that the unclean hands doctrine requires proof of fraud, unconscionable conduct, or bad faith affecting the balance of equities. The court could not find that the carrier’s conduct was unconscionable or affected the balance of equities between the two carriers.