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NJ: Exception to the American Rule for Successful Insureds

Guarantee Insurance Co. v. Saltman, 217 N.J. Super. 604, (App. Div. 1987)

NJ Underlying Legal Malpractice Action

Student Contributor: Colleen Gaedcke

Facts: A few months after obtaining professional malpractice coverage from the plaintiff, one of the partners at the defendant law firm was served with a legal malpractice complaint. The defendant submitted the complaint to the plaintiff who provided a defense under a reservation of rights to disclaim pending an investigation of any misrepresentation by the law firm on its application for coverage. This investigation ultimately revealed that the defendant law firm did not have knowledge of the malpractice claim at the time it submitted its application.

Despite the results of its own investigation, however, plaintiff moved to disclaim its duty to defend and indemnify the firm for alleged fraudulent misrepresentations and intentionally withholding information concerning the malpractice action. Additionally, plaintiff sought reimbursement for all defense costs.

The law firm, in turn, filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff arguing that it owed a defense and indemnity for the pending malpractice claim, and furthermore, sought indemnification for all legal fees incurred in defending the plaintiff’s declaratory judgment action. The court found that the plaintiff’s policy with the defendant was valid and required plaintiff to provide a defense and indemnity in the malpractice action. Moreover, under Court Rule 4:42-9(a)(6), the law firm was awarded a significant portion of the legal fees it incurred in defending the declaratory judgment action.

Issue: Can an insured recover counsel fees from an insurer for costs and expenditures incurred in defending an insurer’s disclaimer of coverage?

Ruling: Under the American Rule, a prevailing party cannot collect attorney’s fees from the losing party. The New Jersey Supreme Court has, however, carved out an exception to this Rule in R. 4:42-9(a)(6) for an insured who is forced to litigate for its policy benefits against an insurer who erroneously disclaims coverage under a liability or indemnity policy of insurance.

Lesson: New Jersey Courts recognize that counsel fees must be awarded to insureds in order to make certain that they are receiving the full value of the coverage afforded by liability and indemnity policies in instances where an insurer’s disclaimer is not supported by the policy’s exclusions, conditions, or limitations on coverage.

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Posted in: Legal Ethics, New Jersey