Subrogation for a Personal Injury Claim Under a Liability Policy? Yes!

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The recent California Appellate Court decision of Interstate Fire & Casualty Insurance Company v. Cleveland Wrecking Company (2010) 182 Cal.App.4th 23, illustrates that under the right circumstances, a liability insurer can subrogate against a third party to recover amounts paid to resolve a first party personal injury claim. The case involved a construction site personal injury claim by an employee of Subcontractor A. The employee filed a personal injury claim against General Contractor and Subcontractor B. Both Subcontractor A and Subcontractor B had contracts with General Contractor, requiring each subcontractor to defend and indemnify General Contractor for any claims arising out of the subcontractor’s operations, and required each subcontractor to name General Contractor as an additional insured under their general liability insurance policy. Subcontractor A procured the liability insurance and named General Contractor as an additional insured. Subcontractor B did not. General Contractor tendered its defense to both subcontractors. Subcontractor A and its insurer, Interstate, accepted the tender. Subcontractor B rejected the tender. Ultimately, General Contractor, through Interstate, as well as Subcontractor B, resolved their claims with the injured employee and filed good faith settlement motions approving the settlements which, under California law, barred any claims for equitable contribution. Thereafter, Interstate filed a subrogation action against Subcontractor B, claiming Subcontractor B breached its contract with Interstate’s additional insured, (General Contractor), by failing to defend and indemnify General Contractor for the claims brought by Subcontractor A’s employee. The trial court dismissed Interstate’s complaint determining Interstate had no rights of subrogation against Subcontractor B, as Subcontractor B’s alleged breach of the contract did not cause any damage to the General Contractor, and the good faith settlement barred any claims of negligence against Subcontractor B for causing the loss. 

The California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling, holding that Interstate had a right of subrogation against Subcontractor B, based on Subcontractor B’s alleged breach of the indemnity provisions in the contract with General Contractor. The court acknowledged that the good faith settlement determination did, under California law, bar any equitable contribution claim based on the comparative negligence of Subcontractor B in causing the injury. However, the court held the contractual claim for indemnity survived the good faith settlement determination, and that Interstate, as the insurer, could step in the shoes of its insured, General Contractor, to pursue the claim. The court extensively reviewed and discussed many of California’s subrogation cases spanning the past 40 years and concluded that the equities of the insurer were superior to that of Subcontractor B, and that there was no basis to prevent the insurer from pursuing its claim for breach of the indemnity provisions within the contract. 

The lesson learned from the case is where a defendant or cross-defendant is not willing to contribute its fair share or acknowledge responsibility under a contractual indemnity agreement, a subsequent subrogation action against the non participating defendant may be a viable option. As the Interstate case illustrates, even if one of the defendants participates in the settlement, but fails to live up to all of its contractual responsibilities, a viable subrogation claim may exist, pending the provisions in the parties’ contracts, and the specific facts of the case.

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