The attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest and most widely-known—if generally misunderstood—common law doctrines. In its broadest outline, it’s a rule that’s fairly easy to grasp and apply: a communication between a lawyer and a client for a legal purpose that is held in confidence is protected from disclosure by privilege. The rule ensures that clients can be candid with their lawyers without fear that their candor is discoverable (and ultimately harmful to their case). But don’t miss the important caveat: the communication must be held in confidence, meaning when there’s another, non-client party in on the conversation, there is no privilege.
This presents an obvious but often missed dilemma, as modern litigation often involves four critical parties sharing communications: the person or entity being sued, their attorney, their liability insurer(s), and their broker. This situation is so ubiquitous that it may be easy to forget that under the traditional rule, when you share information with your insurer or your broker, you’re breaking privilege.
Thirty-two years ago, a major California newspaper urged Californians to vote “no” on a ballot initiative commonly referred to as “Prop 65,” which would require certain businesses to include warning labels on products that contained a compound known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm. However, the editorial board dismissed what it viewed as “exaggerated” claims by other opponents of Prop 65, reassuring voters that even if the measure passed, it would “not lead to the banning of ordinary table salt or require warning labels on every apple sold or cup of coffee served in California.” But last month, a California Superior Court judge ruled that businesses may have to do just that - require warning labels on cups of coffee served in California.
The complaint in the case, Council for Education and Research on Toxics v. Starbucks Corporation, et al., alleges that dozens of companies in the coffee business violated Prop 65 in failing to warn consumers that brewed coffee contains acrylamide, a substance believed to be a carcinogen by the State of California. Defendants in the case were previously unsuccessful in persuading the court that Prop 65’s warning requirements were unnecessary because the alleged acrylamide exposure posed “no significant risk.”
Montrose v. Superior Court and the Future of Exhaustion Under California Law.
When a policyholder faces a “long-tail” claim (i.e., a claim involving injury that remains undetected for some time after the alleged wrongdoing, and the harm may have been sustained over a number of years—even decades), like property damage and bodily injury claims arising out of alleged environmental contamination or asbestos exposure, there are often multiple years and layers of primary and excess insurance policies that provide coverage. However, there are also many issues that may arise, making it difficult for insureds to collect all relevant coverage. For example, the insured may have trouble finding all applicable policies that were in place at relevant times, there may have been mergers and acquisitions that complicate matters, some coverage may have become insolvent, etc.
A key legal issue that impacts the manner in which policyholders may collect all relevant coverage is whether the insured must first exhaust all underlying primary coverage in place during the time of alleged harm before it is allowed to tap into valuable excess coverage (often called “horizontal” exhaustion), or whether it may choose to first collect the primary and excess coverage in any given year before seeking to collect other years of coverage (often called “vertical” or “all sums” exhaustion). While horizontal v. vertical exhaustion (or some variant thereof) is a state-by-state issue, the Supreme Court of California in Montrose Chemical Corp. v. Superior Court, 406 P.3d 327 (Cal. 2017) recently set the stage for potentially one of the most impactful coverage decisions on this issue in decades. There, the California Supreme Court recently granted the policyholder, Montrose’s, request to decide whether it must exhaust all its primary policies on the risk before recovering under any of its excess policies for environmental damages.
The Montrose coverage dispute began in 1990 and arose out of the policyholder, Montrose’s, long-running efforts to procure coverage for over $100 million in damages incurred in a CERCLA action. The action arose out of Montrose’s production of the pesticide DDT at its facility in Torrance, California, between 1947 and 1982 and implicates nearly two dozen insurers that issued both primary and excess policies to Montrose.
About this Blog
Lathrop GPM is one of the largest law firms in the United States representing policyholders, providing policyholders with the necessary guidance and legal counsel to handle everything from negotiating coverage and managing risk to litigating insurance disputes and recovery. The Road to Insurance Recovery blog is dedicated to helping readers better understand and manage the complexities of the modern business insurance policy.