Title insurance is a critical part of most real estate deals. In Washington and throughout the U.S., a piece of real estate has likely changed hands numerous times, including typical purchase money mortgage sales, foreclosures, bequests via a will or trust, or otherwise. As a result, prudent people about to buy land or a home buy title insurance, which protects the buyer from losing money if it subsequently turns out that there is a problem in the chain of prior transactions of the property. For example, a person might buy a new home and subsequently learn that, due to a defective transfer decades prior, the seller didn’t fully own the property and thus the new buyer’s ownership interest is in jeopardy. The new buyer might find themselves defending a lawsuit (a/k/a a “quite title” action) or otherwise taking a monetary loss on the property due to the defective title. In that case, the buyer would tender the claim to their title insurer who would defend the lawsuit or reimburse the buyer.
As a result, most prudent home-buyers and other parties to real estate transactions routinely buy title insurance. Unfortunately, the title insurer often resists paying claims when problems with title arise. This is particularly true where the claims against the title are more esoteric, such as tribal fishing treaty rights.
In Robbins v. Mason County Title Insurance Co., Case No. 50376-0-II, Washington’s Court of Appeals ruled in favor of buyers, the Robbinses, in their dispute with Mason County Title Insurance Company (“Mason Title”). In 1978, the Robbinses purchased land including tidelands formerly owned by the state of Washington (the “Property”), intending to use the tidelands for commercial shellfish harvesting. Being prudent land buyers, the Robbinses also purchased title insurance from Mason Title (the “Policy”). The Policy required Mason Title to insure the Robbinses against any loss resulting from defects in the Property’s title. Specifically, the policy stated:
[Mason Title] shall have the right to, and will, at its own expense, defend the insured with respect to all demands and legal proceedings founded upon a claim of title, encumbrance or defect which existed or is claimed to have existed prior to the date hereof and is not set forth or excepted herein.
Unfortunately for the Robbinses, their newly-purchased tidelands had a defect in title. The Sqaxin Island Tribe (“Tribe”) had a claim to the Property’s shellfish rights by virtue of the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek (“Treaty”). Upon learning of the Robbinses’ shellfish-harvesting aspirations, the Tribe sent the Robbinses a letter asserting its rights under the Treaty and demanding 50 percent of the harvestable shellfish from the Property.
The Robbinses tendered the Tribe’s claim to Mason Title and asked Mason Title to defend them as required by the Policy. Mason Title refused, claiming there was no coverage under the Policy for the Tribe’s claim. The Robbinses sued Mason Title for coverage under the Policy as well as for insurance bad faith.
The Court of Appeals ruled for the Robbinses. The court determined the Tribe’s claim constituted a “demand” “founded on a claim of encumbrance arising before the date of inception of the policy” which the Policy required Mason Title to defend the Robbinses against. Thus, the Robbinses had coverage under the plain language of the Policy.
Mason Title argued the Robbinses’ claim was excluded under the Policy’s exclusion for “public or private easements not disclosed by the public records.” The court disagreed, finding the Tribe’s rights under the Treaty were not “easements.” An easement is “a right to enter and use property for some specified purpose.” The Tribe’s shellfish harvesting rights were not a right granted to the Tribe to enter the Property but rather existing rights the Tribe had always possessed and which the Treaty simply reserved for the Tribe.
Besides ruling the Policy covered the Tribe’s claim against the Robbinses, the court also ruled Mason Title acted in bad faith in unreasonably refusing to defend the Robbinses. The court found Mason Title’s interpretation of the policy was, at best, an arguable reading of an ambiguous provision of the Policy. As such, Mason Title was required to, at least, defend the Robbinses from the Tribe’s claim while reserving its right to dispute coverage.
The Robbins case emphasizes property buyers should carefully review their title insurance policies to confirm they are covered in the event title is defective, and should insist the title insurer follow the policy and provide coverage in the event of a loss.