April 18, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Insurer Who Failed to Reserve Rights Responsible for Default Judgment

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Cornhusker Casualty Co. v. Skaj on Monday, May 18, 2015.

Vincent Rosty, an employee of R&R Roofing, Inc., drove a company dump truck to the home of Shari Skaj, his ex, to drop off roofing supplies and see if his kids were there. At some point after Vincent stopped in an alley behind the Skaj residence, the truck was accidentally knocked into second gear and rolled forward, pinning Ms. Skaj against a parked motor home and causing serious injuries. A lab test performed later in the day confirmed the presence of marijuana and methamphetamine in Vincent’s bloodstream.

Cornhusker Casualty provided commercial liability insurance to R&R at the time of the accident, and R&R and Randy Rosty (0wner of R&R, along with Steven Rosty) were the named insureds. Within days of the accident, Cornhusker hired AmeriClaim adjuster Charles Brando to investigate the incident. Brando’s report noted that Vincent had driven off-route on personal business despite an unwritten company policy prohibiting personal use of company vehicles.

After receiving notice of Ms. Skaj’s forthcoming claim, Cornhusker wrote to R&R, Steven Rosty, and Vincent to notify them of potential excess liability exposure and to inform them of the right to retain independent counsel. Cornhusker specifically stated it would continue to defend the claim. The Skajs filed suit in Wyoming county court, asserting several claims based on negligence and requesting punitive damages since Vincent was intoxicated at the time of the accident. Cornhusker’s counsel filed an answer to the complaint as to Steven and R&R only, asserting she did not represent Vincent. Cornhusker determined Vincent was not entitled to a defense. However, Cornhusker did not attempt to inform Vincent it was no longer defending him. Default issued against Vincent, the non-defaulting defendants were dismissed, and eventually the Wyoming trial court set a default judgment hearing. Cornhusker hired separate representation for Vincent for that hearing, who opposed the default judgment, and after the hearing default entered against Vincent for $897,344.24.

One week after the default judgment hearing, Cornhusker sent Vincent a letter purporting to deny coverage for the first time. In support of its coverage denial, Cornhusker stated Vincent was not a permissive user of the truck, was not acting within the course and scope of his employment with R&R, was intoxicated, and had misappropriated roofing materials from R&R, also stating he had not cooperated with Cornhusker during the Skajs’ lawsuit. Shortly after, Cornhusker sent another letter to Vincent, characterizing its representation of him at the default judgment hearing as “pursuant to a reservation of rights” and for the limited purpose of having the default set aside. Meanwhile, Vincent’s counsel appealed the default, and eventually the Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed the judgment except insofar as it awarded punitive damages. Cornhusker refused to pay, maintaining Vincent was not covered by the policy.

Cornhusker filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming, seeking a declaration that the policy did not provide coverage for Vincent because he was not an insured and had not cooperated in the investigation. Vincent counterclaimed against Cornhusker, asserting theories of negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, promissory estoppel, and breach of contract. The Skajs also counterclaimed, seeking a declaration that Cornhusker was required to pay the judgment in the underlying action and seeking attorney fees based on Cornhusker’s refusal to pay. Vincent and the Skajs jointly counterclaimed that Cornhusker should be estopped from asserting the defense of noncoverage because of its unconditional defense of Vincent in the underlying action. All parties filed motions for summary judgment. After a hearing, the district court declared Cornhusker was estopped from denying coverage to Vincent because it represented it would provide a defense, never reserved its rights, and did not advise Vincent of its decision to deny coverage until more than 16 months after entry of default. The court granted summary judgment to Cornhusker on Vincent’s various claims and denied the Skajs’ motion for attorney fees. The district court ordered Cornhusker to pay the full amount of the default judgment. Cornhusker appealed the district court’s finding of estoppel. The Skajs cross-appealed the court’s denial of their attorney fees. Vincent also appealed, seeking reversal on his bad faith and punitive damages claims.

After quickly dismissing Cornhusker’s standing argument, the Tenth Circuit evaluated the estoppel claim. Prior circuit precedent established estoppel where an insurer defended a claim without reserving its rights. Although the question had not been reached in Wyoming, the Tenth Circuit construed Wyoming law and determined the insurer must accept the consequences of its decision to assume full control of the litigation without a reservation of rights, because the insured was induced to relinquish control of the defense. In this case, Cornhusker never explicitly reserved its rights as to Vincent. Even Vincent’s counsel “found it odd” that Cornhusker would take the approach of providing a full defense to Vincent without a reservation of rights, but the Tenth Circuit found that since that was the path Cornhusker chose, it should face the consequences of its action and pay the judgment. The Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s order for Cornhusker to pay the default judgment.

Next, the Tenth Circuit considered Vincent’s bad faith and punitive damages claims. Vincent characterized the bad faith as Cornhusker’s retention of counsel who refused to defend him and allowed entry of default against him. However, the Tenth Circuit found neither substantive nor procedural bad faith in Cornhusker’s conduct. Because Cornhusker had a reasonable basis for its denial, there was no substantive bad faith. And, because Cornhusker did not fail to investigate the claim, there was no procedural bad faith, and certainly not enough to satisfy Wyoming’s “high bar” for conduct constituting procedural bad faith. The Tenth Circuit similarly disposed of the punitive damages claim since it was based on the same conduct as the bad faith claim. Finding that punitive damages are only to be awarded for conduct so egregious it is nearly criminal, the Tenth Circuit could discern no such conduct here.

The Tenth Circuit then turned to the Skajs’ counterclaim for attorney fees. The district court had determined that Wyoming’s “unreasonable or without cause” standard for refusal to pay losses covered by insurance was so similar to the standard for bad faith that the same analysis applied. The Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s finding and affirmed its denial of attorney fees. Although the Skajs sought to introduce supplemental material to the Tenth Circuit to bolster their attorney fee claim, the Tenth Circuit denied the motion, finding the Skajs could have introduced the evidence in district court but failed to do so. Likewise, Cornhusker’s motion to seal the Skajs’ supplemental index was denied as moot.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court in full, denied the Skajs’ motion to file a supplemental index, and denied as moot Cornhusker’s motion to seal the supplemental index.

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