California Court of Appeal Again Finds No Stacking of Liability Policy Limits

by Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP
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Nearly two years ago, the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District issued a decision that upheld the concept of horizontal exhaustion of primary liability policy limits before triggering the obligation of an excess insurer, but also concluded that, in the context of that case, there was no stacking of liability insurance policies. The case was Kaiser Cement and Gypsum Corp. v. Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, and we reported on it in this blog.

The California Supreme Court accepted review of Kaiser Cement, but then returned the case to the Court of Appeal after the Supreme Court issued its decision in State of California v. Continental Insurance Co., 55 Cal. 4th 186 (2012), a decision we also reported on in a prior blog

 

In Continental, the Supreme Court adopted the “all-sums-with-stacking” approach to addressing indemnification for continuous injury cases. With respect to the stacking issue, the Court found that allowing the insured to “stack” its policies and recover up to the policy limits of all the triggered policies was not only the correct rule based on the policy language but also the equitable result and one that can be achieved “with a comparatively uncomplicated calculation.” The Court, however, advised that insurers may be able to enforce “anti-stacking” provisions in their policies to avoid such a result.  

 

In the unanimous opinion of the Court of Appeal panel in Kaiser Cement, the primary policy considered in that case contained such language that precluding stacking of policy limits. Other than its addition of a brief section on the Continental decision (and some other minor revisions), the second opinion in Kaiser Cement, issued April 8, 2013, is virtually identical to the prior opinion issued June 3, 2011.

 

The underlying dispute involved coverage obligations for thousands of asbestos bodily injury claims brought against Kaiser, and in an even earlier decision, the appellate court held that asbestos bodily injury claims should be treated as multiple occurrences under the primary policies issued to Kaiser by Truck Insurance Exchange, rather than one single occurrence for multiple claimants. The primary policies all had non-aggregating per-occurrence limits, meaning the policies potentially could be on the hook for the total per-occurrence limit for each occurrence.

 

The present appeal addressed the situation as to whether, when an asbestos bodily injury claim exceeded the primary coverage issued by Truck in a particular year, the excess coverage issued by Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania (“ICSOP”) was triggered to provide indemnification to Kaiser. Because the case involved asbestos bodily injury, which continues to cause injury over time, even with a single claimant, a claim could trigger coverage in multiple policy years, and ICSOP argued that the insured had to exhaust all underlying primary policies for all years in which coverage was triggered. Kaiser and Truck both argued that the ICSOP excess policy was triggered upon exhaustion of the single $500,000 per occurrence limit.

 

The 2013 Kaiser Cement decision, just like the one in 2011, issued three holdings:

 

First, it held that the excess insurer ICSOP was entitled to horizontally exhaust all underlying primary insurance that was collectible and valid, and not just those policies directly underneath its excess policy.

 

The second holding, however, concluded that ICSOP was not able to “stack” the individual limits of the Truck primary policies. The court did not base this holding on judicially imposed anti-stacking principles, but rather concluded that under the particular language of the Truck policies, Truck could only be liable as a company for one per-occurrence limit for each occurrence. Specifically, the court cited the language in the insuring agreement stating that,

 

the Company’s liability as respects any occurrence . . . shall not exceed the per occurrence limit designated in the Declarations. (Italics added by court.) 

 

Thus, the court permitted horizontal exhaustion in principle but held that there was no valid and collectible insurance to horizontally exhaust in this case since Kaiser was only entitled to one per-occurrence limit for Truck as a whole for claims that exceeded the $500,000 per occurrence limit in the implicated Truck policy.

 

It was in this part of the Court’s analysis that it considered and analyzed the Continental decision, explaining that its “conclusion that Kaiser may not ‘stack’ Truck’s annual liability limits is consistent with the Supreme Court’s analysis in Continental” because Truck’s policy language was the type of provision envisioned by the Continental decision that precluded the stacking of policy limits for any one occurrence.  

 

Finally, as with the prior decision in Kaiser Cement, the Court of Appeal found that the summary judgment that had been issued by the trial court in favor of Kaiser had to be reversed because, on the present record, the appellate court could not determine if there was primary coverage issued to Kaiser by other insurers (outside of Truck) whose primary policies still needed to be exhausted under the court’s horizontal exhaustion ruling.

 

As of the moment, the Kaiser Cement decision remains citable law, though its status could change if review is sought from the Supreme Court and such review is accepted.

 

Barring such action, the case is helpful to excess insures as it affirms the obligation that horizontal exhaustion of all primary insurance is still the rule in the continuous occurrence context.

 

For primary insurers, the case affords the opportunity to avoid stacking of policy limits in those situations in which specific policy language precludes triggering more than one policy limit per occurrence. As we noted in our prior blog on the Kaiser Cement case, a careful review of the specific policy language found in each primary and excess policy at issue is required.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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