In its recent decision in  K2 Investment Group, LLP v. American Guarantee & Liability Ins. Co., 2013 N.Y. LEXIS 1461, 2013 NY Slip Op. 4270 (NY June 11, 2013), New York's Court of Appeals – New York’s highest court – announced a new rule regarding the consequences for breaching a duty to defend under New York law.

Prior to the decision in K2, New York courts at both the state and federal level consistently rejected the notion that by having breached a duty to defend, an insurer is estopped from relying on coverage defenses for the purpose of contesting an indemnity obligation.  See, e.g., Servidone Construction Corp. v. Security Ins. Co., 488 N.Y.S.2d 139 (NY 1985) (holding it is impermissible for a court to enlarge a policy’s coverage on the basis of an insurer’s breach of a duty to defend); Hotel des Artistes, Inc. v. Gen. Accident Ins. Co. of Am., 775 N.Y.S.2d 262 (1st Dep’t 2004); Robbins v. Michigan Millers Mut. Ins. Co., 633 N.Y.S.2d 975 (3d Dep’t 1997); Hugo Boss Fashions, Inc. v. Fed. Ins. Co., 252 F.3d 608 (2d Cir. 2001). In fact, this rule was reaffirmed as recently as June 11, 2013 – the same day as the K2 decision – by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in CGS Industries, Inc. v. Charter Oak Fire Ins. Co., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 11700 (2d Cir. June 11, 2013). 

The New York Court of Appeals’ June 11, 2013 decision in K2, however, departs from this long-established jurisprudence.  K2 involved loans made by two limited liability companies to a third company, Goldan.  The loans were to be secured by mortgages, but the mortgages were not properly recorded.  The two LLCs subsequently brought suit against Goldan and its two principals, one of whom, Jeffrey Daniels, was an attorney.  The suit asserted a claim of legal malpractice against Mr. Daniels for having failed to record the mortgages.  Mr. Daniels sought coverage from his errors and omissions carrier, American Guarantee, but American Guarantee disclaimed coverage on several grounds. Mr. Daniels subsequently defaulted in the underlying action, and plaintiffs took a judgment in excess of the policy limits of the American Guarantee policy.  The LLCs then asserted a direct action against American Guarantee for breach of contract and failure to settle within policy limits.

American Guarantee moved for summary judgment on the basis of its policy’s “business enterprise” exclusions. It argued that the claim against Mr. Daniels arose out of his capacity or status as a member or owner of Goldan, and that as such, the exclusions applied.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the claimants, and on appeal, New York’s First Department held that the exclusions were “patently inapplicable,” at least for duty to defend purposes, since the essence of the underlying claim was that Mr. Daniels committed legal malpractice.  The Appellate Division, however, was divided as to whether the exclusions applied for the purposes of American Guarantee’s duty to indemnify. 

On appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, American Guarantee essentially conceded that it had breached its duty to defend Mr. Daniels, but argued that it could still rely on the exclusions to avoid a duty to indemnify.  The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that by having breached its duty to defend Mr. Daniels, American Guarantee “lost its right” to rely on the exclusions for indemnity purposes.  Relying on its decision in Lang v. Hanover Ins. Co., 787 N.Y.S.2d 211 (NY 2004) – a case involving the insurer’s right to contest the insured’s liability for underlying loss after breaching a duty to defend – the court articulated its new rule:

… we now make clear that Lang, at least as it applies to such situations, means what it says: an insurance company that has disclaimed its duty to defend "may litigate only the validity of its disclaimer." If the disclaimer is found bad, the insurance company must indemnify its insured for the resulting judgment, even if policy exclusions would otherwise have negated the duty to indemnify. This rule will give insurers an incentive to defend the cases they are bound by law to defend, and thus to give insureds the full benefit of their bargain. It would be unfair to insureds, and would promote unnecessary and wasteful litigation, if an insurer, having wrongfully abandoned its insured's defense, could then require the insured to litigate the effect of policy exclusions on the duty to indemnify.  (Emphasis supplied.)

The K2 Court conceded that there may be exceptions to this new rule, such as where public policy precludes indemnification for an underlying loss.  Further, the ruling appears limited in its reach to consideration of whether exclusions can apply after a duty to defend has been breached.  Presumably, this rule will not apply where the underlying loss is covered in the first instance, i.e., not when the loss falls outside the scope of a policy’s insuring agreement. These and other questions, and the reach of K2, will undoubtedly be the subject of future controversy and litigation.