Court of Appeals Clarifies Standard for Determining Exhaustion of Primary Insurance Coverage in Long-Term Losses

A recent Washington Court of Appeals decision helps clear up the obligations of excess insurers for losses occurring over many years when multiple insurance policies were in effect. Many businesses have two layers of insurance: “primary” insurance, which pays for losses up to a certain dollar amount, and then “excess” insurance, which kicks in if losses are so great that the primary insurance coverage amount is exhausted before the insured is fully compensated for the loss.

But what happens where the loss occurs over a decade during which the insured had multiple different primary and excess insurance policies–does the insured need to exhaust its primary coverage in each policy year in order to access the excess coverage?

The Court of Appeals’ August 23, 2021 ruling in Gull Industries v. Granite State Insurance Company answered that question “no”. This was a lawsuit brought by a gas station operator, Gull Industries, against multiple insurance companies seeking coverage for environmental contamination caused at 200 gas stations over 50 years. The spillage occurred gradually in the normal course of running the gas stations: customers spilled gas while filling their cars, supply trucks spilled gas while filling up storage tanks, and storage tanks gradually seeped gas into the ground. The company faced liability for the environmental contamination including lawsuits at 24 sites and regulatory action at 19 sites.

A main issue in the case was when and if Gull’s excess insurer, Granite State Insurance Company, had to start paying for the environmental contamination. That depended on when Granite State’s primary insurance was considered to have been exhausted. Gull argued this should be viewed for each policy year individually; in other words, as soon as one policy year’s worth of primary coverage was exhausted, Granite State’s excess obligation kicked in regardless of whether there was primary coverage in other policy years.

Granite State disagreed, claiming that its excess coverage was not in play until all of the first level coverage in every policy year of the many decades of contamination was exhausted. The trial court agreed with Granite State. Gull appealed.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court erred when it accepted Granite State’s argument that Gull had to exhaust its primary coverage in every year before Granite State had any excess insurance obligations. The court noted the absence of Washington State caselaw on this question. But it relied on a California Supreme Court ruling that decided the issue using the same rules of insurance policy interpretation applied in Washington State.

The California Supreme Court found that the most natural reading of similar insurance policy language means that the excess coverage kicks in whenever the primary coverage is exhausted in the same policy year, regardless of what happened in other coverage periods. The court also pointed out that requiring an insured to prove it exhausted primary coverage in multiple policy years creates unreasonable obstacles to an insured seeking coverage and undermine the insured’s reasonable expectations.

The Court of Appeals found this reasoning persuasive. It emphasized the importance of the reasonable expectations of the insured in interpreting insurance policies. It also noted that requiring the insured to prove it exhausted the primary limits of every policy period of a multi-decade loss would unreasonably require the insured to sue over coverage obligations of different primary policies that was not anticipated when it purchased the excess policy.

This ruling is a good reminder that Washington State courts will interpret insurance policies to give effect to reasonable expectations of coverage over impractical and overly technical readings of the policy fine print.

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