December 4, 2023
A recent Law.com story by Emily Saul, “’Policyholders May Recoup Attorney Fees If Insurer Fails in Contesting Duty to Indemnify”, reports that an insurer defending a policyholder in litigation must also reimburse the insured party’s coverage action costs if the insurer loses a legal challenge to its indemnity obligation, a judge has ruled. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Gerald Lebovits, in a case without a definitive decision from the state’s highest court, affirmed that when an insured “is cast in a defensive posture by the legal steps an insurer takes in an effort to free itself from its policy obligations,” and the insured party then prevails, the policyholder may recover attorney fees “incurred in defending against the insurer’s action.” Little New York appellate precedent exists on this specific fee issue, Lebovits noted in his 10-page order, issued. The decision increases insurance companies’ risk, should companies seek to deny coverage.
The underlying litigation—which continues—involves construction in two mixed-use commercial and residential buildings in Manhattan. Plaintiffs sued defendants Crystal Curtain Wall System Corp. and other affiliated entities in 2011 over water damage caused by alleged construction defects. Utica Mutual Insurance Company and Utica National Assurance Company sued their policyholder Crystal entities in 2022, asking a judge to define the scope of its duty to indemnify the client.
Crystal subsequently moved to dismiss the action not yet ripe and sought an award of attorneys fees, should their motion prevail. Utica cross-moved for partial summary judgment, asking the court to find it had no duty to indemnify Crystal as to the costs of repair or replacement of the curtain wall. “This attorney fee request implicates a legal question about the parameters of a prevailing insured’s entitlement to attorney fees from its insurer that New York appellate courts appear not to have considered,” the judge wrote.
“The parties do not cite, and this court has not found, any decision of the Court of Appeals or the Appellate Division discussing whether a prevailing policyholder is entitled to attorney fees when the insurer has acknowledged a duty to defend but contested the duty to indemnify,” the order states. Absent precedent, Lebovitz said the court concludes for itself that a policyholder is entitled to attorneys fees when it prevails in an action brought by the insurance company challenging its duty to indemnify.
“New York doctrine in this area rests on the insurer’s duty to defend its insured in ‘any action arising out of the occurrence, including a defense against an insurer’s declaratory-judgment action.’ (City Club Hotel, 3 NY3d at 598 [emphasis added].) This is true when an insurer contests both the duty to defend and to indemnify,” the judge wrote. “No logical reason exists why it should be different—why an insurer’s duty to defend its insured should suddenly cease—when the insurer disputes only the duty to indemnify. And the Court of Appeals’ holdings in this area have always been phrased in broad terms that would encompass an insurer’s indemnification-only challenge: They permit recovery by the insured that prevails against ‘the legal steps an insurer takes in an effort to free itself from its policy obligations,’ period—not merely the insurer’s policy obligation to defend.”