The concept behind the innocent insured doctrine is simple: where there are multiple insureds on an insurance policy, a breach by one does not necessarily eliminate coverage for those not personally involved in the breach. But what if the breach occurs in conjunction with a renewal application? That’s the question the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide late last month in Illinois State Bar Association Mutual Insurance Co. v. Law Office of Tuzzolino & Terpinas.

The case began when a former client filed a malpractice suit against one of the partners. The attorney persuaded the former client to drop the suit and instead retain the attorney to sue the attorney who handled a related bankruptcy. That suit was dismissed, however. When the client discovered the dismissal, the attorney made an offer to settle the malpractice claim, but the offer was rejected.

Not long after, the same partner filed a renewal form with the firm’s malpractice insurance carrier. In response to a question on the form, “[h]as any member of the firm become aware of a past or present circumstance[s] which may give rise to a claim that has not been reported,” the attorney answered “no.” The attorney signed the form, but the second partner was not required to do so.

A month after completion of the renewal form, the second partner received a lien letter from the attorney hired to represent the first partner in the impending malpractice claims. The second partner forwarded the information to the insurer. He alleges that this was the first time he was aware of any potential claims arising out of his partner’s representation of the client.

The insurer filed suit seeking rescission of the policy with respect to both partners and the firm, arguing that the first partner’s failure to disclose the potential claim voided the policy ab initio. The second partner counterclaimed for a declaratory judgment that he was covered by the policy in connection with the client’s suit.

The plaintiff moved for summary judgment on all counts against all defendants.   The trial court granted the motion, finding that the insurance contract was indivisible, and could not be rescinded with respect to one partner only. The court accordingly held that the insurer had no obligation to defend the firm or the innocent partner. The innocent partner and the firm appealed.

The Appellate Court reversed.

The attorney argued that the innocent insured clause contained in the policy preserved coverage. The court pointed out, however, that the attorney was ignoring the distinction between a misrepresentation during the life of the policy and one in the application process. Therefore, the question was not whether the language of the policy covered the innocent partner, but rather whether the common law innocent insured doctrine permitted the policy to remain in place as to him.

The common law innocent insured doctrine applies when two or more insureds maintain a policy and one commits an act that would normally void the policy but a “reasonable person would not understand that the wrongdoing of [the] coinsured would prevent recovery.” The doctrine is often applied, for example, where one of multiple owners sets fire to a property without his or her co-owner’s knowledge.

The Appellate Court rejected the insurer’s claim that the first partner’s misrepresentation rendered the policy void ab initio. In fact, the Court held, the policy was voidable, not void. For that reason, the Court chose to follow Economy Fire & Casualty Co. v. WarrenIn Warren, a husband and wife co-owned a house destroyed by fire. The couple settled their claim with their homeowner’s policy insurer. When it became known that the wife has set the fire, the insurer tried to rescind the settlement agreement on grounds of fraud. The Court applied the innocent insured doctrine to hold that the husband – who claimed to have no knowledge of his wife’s actions – was entitled to retain half of the settlement.

The Court further held that Section 154 of the Insurance Code (215 ILCS 5/154) – which provides that no misrepresentation or false warranty in an insurance application can defeat coverage unless material or made with an intent to deceive – supported application of the common law innocent insured doctrine.

Finally, the Court held that public policy favored application of the doctrine, since allowing rescission would mean that the innocent party had no coverage not only in connection with the plaintiff’s claim, but in connection with any claim during the policy period.

We expect Tuzzolino & Terpinas to be decided in six to eight months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Alan Cleaver (no changes).