California Appeals Court Rules that “Escape” “Other Insurance” Clause Contained in Coverage Portion of Primary CGL Policy Not Enforceable in Equitable Contribution Action

In Certain Underwriters at Lloyds, London v. Arch Specialty Insurance Co., a California appeals court held that an “other insurance” clause in a primary commercial general liability policy would not, as a matter of public policy, allow the insurer to avoid having to share defense costs.

Certain Underwriters at Lloyds, London (“Underwriters”) and Arch Specialty Insurance Company (“Arch”) were both primary insurers of Framecon, Inc. over successive policy years. Framecon was sued by a real estate developer for framing and carpentry work it performed on residential homes in three separate homeowner actions. Framecon tendered the claims to both Underwriters and Arch. Underwriters agreed to defend Framecon, while Arch denied any defense obligation based on the “other insurance” language contained in the insuring agreement and in the conditions section of its policy.

The underlying claims against Framecon were eventually settled with both Underwriters and Arch agreeing to indemnify Framecon for damages on a “time on the risk” basis. Underwriters then sued Arch for declaratory relief and equitable contribution for defense costs incurred in the underlying litigation. In cross-motions for summary judgment, Arch argued that its “other insurance” provisions relieved it of any duty to defend. The trial court found in favor of Arch, and relied on a prior California case which held that the placement of the “other insurance” clause in the insuring agreement of the policy, as opposed to in the conditions section, makes it an enforceable exception from coverage for defense costs rather than a disfavored “escape” clause.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal noted that the original purpose of “other insurance” clauses was to prevent multiple recovery by insureds in cases of overlapping policies providing coverage for the same loss, but that public policy disfavored “escape” clauses. The court explained that “escape” clauses are so named because they permit an insurer to make a seemingly ironclad guarantee of coverage, only to withdraw that coverage – and thus “escape” liability – in the presence of other insurance. The Court of Appeal rejected Arch’s argument that its “other insurance” clause was enforceable because it was located in both the insuring agreement and in the conditions section of the policy, and found that the “modern trend” is to distrust “escape” “other insurance” clauses that attempt to shift the burden away from a primary insurer. The court also stated that reliance on location of the “other insurance” clause in the coverage section as determinative “would tend to encourage insurers to jockey for best position in choosing where to locate ‘other insurance’ language, needlessly complicating the drafting of policies, inducing wasteful litigation among insurers, and delaying settlements – all ultimately to the detriment of the insurance-buying public.”

The Court of Appeal concluded that Underwriters was entitled to receive equitable contribution from Arch as the “other insurance” clause contained in Arch policy was not enforceable based on public policy considerations.