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Liability insurance is a part of the general insurance system of risk financing to protect the purchaser (the "insured") from the risks of liabilities imposed by lawsuits and similar claims. It protects the insured in the event he or she is sued for claims that come within the coverage of the insurance policy. Originally, individuals or companies that faced a common peril, formed a group and created a self-help fund out of which to pay compensation should any member incur loss (in other words, a mutual insurance arrangement). The modern system relies on dedicated carriers, usually for-profit, to offer protection against specified perils in consideration of a premium. Liability insurance is designed to offer specific protection against third party insurance claims, i.e., payment is not typically made to the insured, but rather to someone suffering loss who is not a party to the insurance contract. In general, damage caused intentionally as well as contractual liability are not covered under liability insurance policies. When a claim is made, the insurance carrier has the duty (and right) to defend the insured. The legal costs of a defense normally do not affect policy limits unless the policy expressly states otherwise; this default rule is useful because defense costs tend to soar when cases go to trial.
What liability insurance provides
Liability insurers have two (or three, in some jurisdictions) major duties: 1) the duty to defend, 2) the duty to indemnify and (in some jurisdictions), 3) the duty to settle a reasonably clear claim.
The duty to defend is triggered when the insured is sued and in turn "tenders" defense of the claim to its liability insurer. Usually this is done by sending a copy of the complaint along with a cover letter referencing the relevant insurance policy or policies and demanding an immediate defense. At this point, the insurer has three options, to:(1) seek a declaratory judgment of no coverage; (2) defend; or (3) refuse either to defend or to seek a declaratory judgment.
If a declaratory judgment is sought, the issue of the insurer's duty to defend will be resolved.
If the insurer decides to defend, it has thus either waived its defense of no coverage (later estopped), or it must defend under a reservation of rights. The latter means that the insurer reserves the right to withdraw from defending in the event that it turns out the claim is not covered, and to recover from the insured any funds expended to date.
If the insurer chooses to defend, it may either defend the claim with its own in-house lawyers (where allowed), or give the claim to an outside law firm on a "panel" of preferred firms which have negotiated a standard fee schedule with the insurer in exchange for a regular flow of work. The decision to defend under a reservation of rights must be undertaken with extreme caution in jurisdictions where the insured has a right to Cumis counsel.
The choice to do nothing can be very risky because a later determination that the duty applied often leads to the tort of bad faith. (So, insurers often prefer to defend under a reservation of rights rather than simply do nothing.)
The duty to indemnify means the duty to pay "all sums" for which the insured is held liable, up to a set policy limit.
To settle reasonable claims
In some jurisdictions, there is a third duty, the duty to settle a reasonably clear claim against the insured. The duty is of greatest import during situations in which the settlement demand equals or exceeds the policy limits. In that case, the insurer has an incentive not to settle, since if it settles, it will certainly pay the policy limit. But this interest is at odds with the interest of its insured. The company has incentive not to settle since if the case goes to trial, there are only two possibilities: its insured loses and insurer pays the policy limits (nothing gained nothing lost), or its insured wins, leaving the insurer with no liability. But, if the insurer refuses to settle, and the case goes to trial, the insured might be held liable for a sum far exceeding the settlement offer. In turn, the plaintiff might then attempt to recover the difference between the policy limits and the actual judgment by obtaining writs of attachment or execution against the insured's assets.
This is where the duty to settle comes in. To avoid endangering an insured to gain a remote possibility of avoiding paying on the policy, the duty to defend obligates the insurance company to settle reasonably clear claims. The standard judicial test is that an insurer must settle a claim if a reasonable insurer, notwithstanding any policy limits, would have settled the claim.
Effects of breach
An insurer who breaches any of these three duties may be held liable for the tort of insurance bad faith in addition to breach of contract.