In response to certified questions from the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, the Nevada Supreme Court has adopted the Cumis independent counsel rule established by California courts requiring an insurer to provide independent counsel for its insured when a conflict of interest arises between the insurer and insured. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Hansen, 131 Nev. Adv. Op. 74 (Sept. 24, 2015). The court also rejected application of a standard that creates a per se conflict of interest to every case in which there is a reservation of rights. Instead, Nevada courts must ask, on a case-by-case basis, whether an actual conflict exists.
In the underlying litigation, State Farm’s insured was sued for negligence and various intentional torts following an altercation at a house party and subsequent auto collision. State Farm agreed to defend under a reservation of rights, but did not agree to provide independent counsel to its insured. In subsequent coverage litigation, the federal district court initially found that State Farm breached its contractual duty to defend because it had not provided independent counsel to its insured. The court then reconsidered and asked the Nevada Supreme Court to resolve questions concerning the state’s conflict of interest rules in insurance litigation.
Recognizing that Nevada, like California, is a dual-representation state – meaning that insurer appointed counsel represents both the insurer and insured – the Nevada Supreme court held that “counsel may not represent both the insurer and the insured when their interests conflict and no special exception applies.” This justified application of the Cumis rule in Nevada.
The Court then considered what circumstances created a conflict of interest and, in particular, whether a reservation of rights created a per se right to independent counsel. The Court concluded that even when there is a reservation of rights and insurer-appointed counsel has control over an issue in the case that will also decide the coverage issue, courts must still determine whether there is an actual conflict of interest. Relying on Nevada’s Rule of Professional Conduct 1.7, the Court explained, “[t]his means that there is no conflict if the reservation of rights is based on coverage issues that are only extrinsic or ancillary to the issues actually litigated in the underlying action.”
The decision provides useful guidance to Nevada litigants and trial courts for resolving conflict of interests in insurance litigation. However, the opinion leaves unaddressed other Cumis-type issues such as the reasonable amount of fees for independent defense counsel. As such, more litigation and possible legislation to clarify the rule should be expected.