On July 29, 2010, the California Court of Appeals, Fifth District, held that an insurer waived its right to equitable subrogation when it entered into a settlement without identifying its insured or apportioning payment. The case arose from a complicated personal injury action, causing the trial court to comment that "this is one of the most screwed up cases I’ve ever seen." The court of appeals responded that "we heartily agree."
Essex Insurance Company had defended a personal injury action on behalf of the individual who had hired the plaintiff. That plaintiff was injured when he stepped on a nail while moving a refrigeration unit in a restaurant. After making payment to the plaintiff, Essex sought recovery from a doctor whose alleged malpractice had resulted in plaintiff suffering two amputations. The court of appeal denied Essex equitable subrogation, explaining that it only had the right to assert claims for monies paid out on behalf of its insured. Since Essex failed to spell out the amounts paid on behalf of its insured, as opposed to payments on related claims, the court found that neither equitable subrogation nor indemnification were available.
The lesson of the Essex case is simple. In order to preserve equitable subrogation and/or indemnity rights, the insurer must carefully craft all settlement documents and releases. The court will not attempt to glean what amounts are made on behalf of the insured, as opposed to bad faith or fraud claims. The Essex case reiterates the most basic tenet of subrogation-you can only stand in the shoes of your insured for payments made on its behalf.