Prospective Additional Insureds May Be Obligated to Arbitrate Coverage Disputes
The Court of Appeal closed out 2019 by ruling that an additional insured can be bound to the arbitration clause in a policy when a coverage dispute arises between that additional insured and the carrier. (Philadelphia Indemnity Ins. Co. v. SMG Holdings, Inc. (2019) 44 Cal. App. 5th 834, 837.)
In 2009, Future Farmers of America (“Future Farmers”) entered into a license agreement with SMG Holdings Incorporated (“SMG”) to use the Fresno Convention Center. As part of the agreement, Future Farmers was required to secure comprehensive general liability (“CGL”) coverage and name SMG and the City of Fresno as additional insureds (“AI”) on its policies.
Future Farmers purchased a general liability policy from Plaintiff Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company (“Philadelphia”). Neither SMG nor the City of Fresno were added as AIs, but the policy contained a “deluxe endorsement” which extended coverage to lessors of premises for “liability arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of that part of the premises leased or rented” to the named insured. The policy also contained an endorsement that extended coverage where required by a written contract for liability due to the negligence of the named insured. Philadelphia’s policy also stated that if the insurance company and insured “do not agree whether coverage is provided . . . for a claim made against the insured, then either party may make a written demand for arbitration.”
A patron to Future Farmer’s event at the Fresno Convention Center was seriously injured after he tripped over a pothole in the parking lot and hit his head. He sued both Fresno and SMG. In turn, Fresno and SMG tendered their defense to Philadelphia. Philadelphia denied coverage finding that the incident did not arise out of Future Farmer’s negligence, and that SMG had the sole responsibility for maintaining the parking lot. Consequently, Philadelphia concluded that neither Fresno nor SMG qualified “as an additional insured under the policy” for the injury in the parking lot.
The coverage dispute continued, and in 2016, Philadelphia issued a demand for arbitration which was rejected by SMG. Philadelphia then petitioned the state court to compel arbitration arguing that SMG could not avoid the burdens of the policy while seeking to obtain policy benefits. SMG used Philadelphia’s conclusion that it did not qualify as an AI under the policy to argue that Philadelphia was “estopped from demanding arbitration”. In other words, SMG argued that it could not be held to the burdens of the policy without being provided with the benefits of the policy.
The trial court sided with SMG finding that there was no arbitration agreement between the parties. The court noted that while third party beneficiaries can be compelled to arbitration there was no evidence that applied here, and Philadelphia could not maintain its inconsistent positions on the policy as its respects SMG.
Disagreeing with the trial court, the Court of Appeal concluded that SMG was a third-party beneficiary of the policy. The AI obligations in the license agreement and the deluxe endorsement in the Philadelphia policy collectively establish an intended beneficiary status. The Court saw SMG’s tender to Philadelphia as an acknowledgement of that status.
Relatedly, the Court found that SMG’s tender to Philadelphia – its demand for policy benefits – equitably estopped them from avoiding the burdens of the policy. The Court stated it defied logic to require a named insured to arbitrate coverage disputes but free an unnamed insured demanding policy coverage from the same requirement. Conversely, the Court found no inconsistency in Philadelphia’s denial of coverage to SMG and its subsequent demand for arbitration. Philadelphia did not outright reject SMG’s status as a potential insured, but rather concluded that there was no coverage because the injury occurred in the parking lot. In other words, the coverage determination turned on the circumstances of the injury not SMG’s status under the policy.
In short, the Court concluded that the potential insured takes the good with the bad. If one seeks to claim coverage as an additional insured, they can be subject to the restrictions of the policy including arbitration clauses even if they did not purchase the policy.
Securing additional insurance has become increasingly more difficult and limited over the years, and this holding presents yet another hurdle to attaining AI coverage. For those seeking coverage, it is important to note that the Court’s ruling may have turned out differently had the carrier outright denied SMG’s AI status, rather than concluding that the injury was not covered.
Your insurance scenario may vary from the case discussed above. Please contact legal counsel before making any decisions. BPH’s attorneys can be reached via email to answer your questions.
Danielle S. Ward, Senior Attorney
Balestreri Potocki & Holmes