In Perma-Pipe, Inc. v. Liberty Surplus Insurance Corp., No. 13-2989, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54867 (N.D. Ill. April 21, 2014), the Northern District of Illinois held an insurer breached its duty to defend when it refused to pay for the insured’s independent defense counsel. Although the insurer had waived all coverage defenses, there was a “nontrivial” exposure over the policy limit, which created a conflict of interest under Illinois law.

The insured, Perma-Pipe, was a pipe manufacturer sued for alleged “catastrophic” pipe failures with damages alleged over $40 million. Liberty issued a commercial general liability (CGL) policy with $1 million per occurrence and $2 million aggregate limits. Liberty agreed to defend, but reserved rights and allowed Perma-Pipe to select independent defense counsel. Liberty later withdrew its reservations and retained its own defense counsel. Perma-Pipe sued.

The federal district court, applying Illinois law, found a conflict of interest requiring independent defense counsel. Because Perma-Pipe was sued for more than $40 million, far above the policy limits, there was “a nontrivial probability” of an excess judgment. While Liberty argued Perma-Pipe had excess coverage, there was no evidence of this in the record. In any event, the possible existence of excess coverage would not negate the conflict.

While the “nontrivial” excess exposure test may be difficult to apply, that is apparently not the case where the exposure alleged dwarfs the available coverage limits.