Florida Court Allows Extrinsic Facts for Determining Duty to Defend

by Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry LLP

In its recent decision in Composite Structures, Inc. v. Cont'l Ins. Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147320 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 12, 2012), the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida considered if and when an insurer can rely on facts extrinsic to a complaint for the purpose of determining a duty to defend.
The insured, Marlow Marine Sales was named as a defendant in an underlying suit brought by two individuals claiming bodily injuries as a result of exposure to carbon monoxide fumes while working aboard a yacht designed, manufactured and sold by Marlow. Marlow subsequently tendered the matter to its general liability insurer, Continental. One month after suit was filed, during which time Continental was still in the process of investigating Marlow’s right to coverage, plaintiffs in the underlying suit filed a memorandum of law specifying the time period during which they were exposed to the fumes. Continental learned of this filing and relied on the information contained therein to deny coverage based on a pollution exclusion that only applied if the insured did not learn of the occurrence within seventy-two (72) hours of its commencement. Continental relied on the information contained in the subsequently filed memorandum, which was not otherwise in the complaint, to conclude that this exception to the exclusion was inapplicable.
Marlow agreed that it did not learn of the occurrence within the seventy-two hour window. It nevertheless contended that it was entitled to a defense since Continental only learned of the facts relevant to the coverage defense from a pleading filed subsequent to the complaint. Marlow argued that Continental could not rely on such extrinsic facts in determining its defense obligation, but instead its duty to defend could only be determined by the complaint, which contained no facts one way or the other relevant to the application of the exception to the exclusion. In light of this silence, Marlow contended that Continental was required to have provided a defense.
The court agreed that under Florida law, consideration of the duty to defend is typically restricted to the allegations in the complaint. Citing to the Florida Supreme Court decision in Higgins v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 894 So. 2d 5(Fla. 2004), however, the court acknowledged an exception to this rule where the insurer’s defense to coverage “is based on factual issues that would not normally be alleged in the underlying complaint.” While the underlying suit against Marlow contained allegations relevant to the pollution exclusion, it did not contain allegations bearing on the issue of when Marlow became aware of the alleged occurrence. The court nevertheless went on to consider whether these facts should have been asserted in the underlying suit. The court answered this question in the negative, explaining that such facts were irrelevant in a products liability suit alleging causes of action for negligence and strict liability:
Neither cause of action requires a plaintiff to allege the specific date on which he informed the defendant of his injuries or the specific date on which the defendant informed its insurer. Indeed, before filing suit, an injured plaintiff is unlikely to be privy to information regarding the date on which a defendant informs its insurer of the incident. Those facts "would not normally be alleged in the underlying complaint," and therefore, the duty to defend can only be determined by examining outside evidence.
The court agreed that these facts extrinsic to the underlying complaint conclusively established that Marlow was not aware of the alleged occurrence within the seventy-two hour period necessary to trigger the policy’s exception to the pollution exclusion. Thus, underlying the circumstances, the court held that “Continental was well within its rights to deny coverage.”

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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