When an employer is vicariously liable to a third party for its employee’s negligence, and both the employer and employee have primary and umbrella policies covering liability to the third party, the employee’s primary and umbrella policies must first be exhausted before the employer’s policies are implicated.
The California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District in GuideOne Mutual Insurance Company v. Utica National Insurance Group recently held that priority of liability among primary and umbrella insurers of an employer and employee “is based upon principles of vicarious liability, not more general rules government primary and excess policies.”
GuideOne was an equitable contribution action involving the following scenario: Gary West was a pastor who worked for Crosswinds Community Church (“Crosswinds”) and Christian Evangelical Assemblies (“CEA”). During the course of his work, West was driving and struck a motorcyclist, Robert Jester, who sustained severe injuries. Jester filed suit against West, Crosswinds and CEA for personal injuries, and the case settled for $4.5 million. The liability of Crosswinds and CEA was entirely vicarious to the liability of West.
GuideOne issued primary and umbrella policies to Crosswinds which covered negligent acts by an employee. Utica issued primary and umbrella policies to CEA that covered only the employer. After the underlying case settled, GuideOne filed an equitable contribution action against Utica seeking a pro rata share of the settlement amount
The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court erred in awarding equitable contribution to GuideOne on a pro rata basis. In support of its decision, the Court held that an employer is only vicariously liable for the actions of the tortfeasor employee, and therefore all of the insurance policies covering the employee, primary and excess, must be exhausted before the umbrella policy of an insurer that covered only the employer must make a contribution.