As we’ve often observed, insurance policy fine print matters. Insurers can only deny claims if the policy language excludes the claim from coverage. A recent decision from our local federal appeals court confirms insurers cannot re-write the policy after the fact to support denying coverage.
On February 18, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Washington State, decided National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, PA v. Zillow, Inc. The court ruled Zillow could proceed with a lawsuit alleging its insurer improperly denied coverage for a lawsuit against Zillow for copyright infringement. The decision is unpublished, so it can be cited for persuasive value but lower courts are not required to follow the ruling.
The insurance claim arose because Zillow was sued for copyright infringement by VHT, Inc. Zillow made a claim under its professional liability insurance policy issued by National Union Fire Insurance Company.
The insurance policy only covered claims that were first made against Zillow during a specific time period (the “policy period”). VHT sued Zillow during the policy period. But, before the policy period began, VHT had sent Zillow a letter threatening to sue Zillow for the same copyright infringement alleged in the lawsuit. Accordingly, National Union argued there was no coverage because the claims alleged in the VHT lawsuit had been raised before the policy period.
The trial court agreed with VHT and ruled Zillow had no coverage for the VHT suit under its insurance policy. But the Ninth Circuit reversed, ruling the insurer should not have been allowed to stretch the policy language to support denying coverage.
The court of appeals examined the insurance policy language closely. For purposes of deciding whether a claim occurred during the policy period, the policy defined a “claim” as either a lawsuit or a demand letter. Since the VHT lawsuit was obviously a lawsuit, the court had no trouble deciding that the lawsuit was a claim arising during the policy period.
The court did not buy the insurer’s argument that VHT’s demand letter and VHT’s lawsuit should be treated as a single claim. The court emphasized that National Union could have added language to this effect to the insurance policy, but chose not to:
“[U]nlike a number of other claims-first-made policies cited by both parties, the Policy does not contain a provision expressly providing for the integration of factually related Claims. Had National Union wanted factually similar Claims to be integrated under the Policy’s coverage provision, it could have easily drafted the Policy to include such a requirement.”
The Ninth Circuit also emphasized that insurance policies must be read as they are written, criticizing the trial court for reading the word “or” out of the definition of “claim”. The court emphasized that Washington State law requires ambiguous insurance policy language, i.e., language that could arguably be read in two different ways, be interpreted in favor of the insured. The court sent the case back down to the trial court to reconsider whether Zillow had insurance coverage under the correct reading of the policy.
The Zillow decision is an important reminder that insurance policy fine print matters. Insurers, after all, are the ones writing their insurance policies. The insurer has the opportunity to draft exclusions into the policy before they sell it. They can’t add new exclusions to the insurance policy after the fact. And, if the policy is so poorly written that it could be read multiple ways, the proverbial tie-breaker goes to the insured.