USF&G v. Federated Rural Elec. Ins. Corp., No. 96,172.

CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
Writing for the CourtSUMMERS, J.
Citation2001 OK 81,37 P.3d 828
PartiesUNITED STATES FIDELITY AND GUARANTY COMPANY, Plaintiff/Appellee, v. FEDERATED RURAL ELECTRIC INSURANCE CORPORATION, Defendant/Appellant.
Docket NumberNo. 96,172.
Decision Date09 October 2001

37 P.3d 828
2001 OK 81

UNITED STATES FIDELITY AND GUARANTY COMPANY, Plaintiff/Appellee,
v.
FEDERATED RURAL ELECTRIC INSURANCE CORPORATION, Defendant/Appellant

No. 96,172.

Supreme Court of Oklahoma.

October 9, 2001.


Marc A. Powell, Alan R. Pfaff, Powell, Brewer, Gough & Withers, L.L.P., Wichita, KS, for Plaintiff.

Michael C. Stewart, Chubbuck, Smith, Rhodes, Stewart & Elder, P.L.L.C., Oklahoma City, OK, for Defendant.

37 P.3d 830
SUMMERS, J

¶ 1 Pursuant to the Revised Uniform Certified of Questions of Law Act, 20 O.S.Supp. 1997, 1601 et seq., the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has submitted to us the following question:

"In Republic Underwriters Insurance Co. v. Fire Ins. Exchange, 655 P.2d 544 (Okla.1982), the Supreme Court of Oklahoma applied the doctrine of equitable subrogation to require two insurance companies, both of whom insured against a single common loss, to pay their respective proportionate share of the loss. Will Oklahoma apply the doctrine to require an excess insurer to pay an equitable portion of the cost of defense prior to the primary insurer's tendering of the policy limits when the excess nature of the claim was evident from the facts?"

¶ 2 We answer in the negative. An excess insurer has no duty to participate in defense costs until the limits of the primary policy are exhausted. Oklahoma will not apply the doctrine of equitable subrogation to require an excess insurer to participate in the cost of an insured's defense prior to the exhaustion of the primary policy limits, even though the claim against insured exceeds the primary insurer's policy limits.

¶ 3 This action resulted from underlying litigation concerning property losses suffered by landowners in Woods County in February, 1996. A wildfire was allegedly started by a truck being negligently operated by an employee of O & M Powerline Construction Co.(O & M) who was installing a power pole under contract with Alfalfa Electric Cooperative (Alfalfa).

¶ 4 Federated Rural Electric Insurance Corporation (Federated) and United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. (USF & G) each insured Alfalfa. USF & G, the primary insurer, had issued a $1 million commercial general liability and business automobile policy to O & M that listed Alfalfa as an additional insured under an endorsement to the policy. USF & G's policy provided that it had a duty to defend Alfalfa against suit for damages and that its duty ended when the policy limits had been paid. Federated, the excess insurer, issued a $1 million all risk blanket policy to Alfalfa and also a $6 million commercial umbrella policy to Alfalfa.

¶ 5 The damaged landowners brought an action in Woods County District Court seeking damages from O & M and Alfalfa, alleging negligence. (See Bouziden v. Alfalfa Electric Cooperative, 2000 OK 50, 16 P.3d 450). After the defendants were served with notice of the litigation pending against them, Alfalfa notified Federated of its need for defense, but Federated declined to defend Alfalfa and requested USF & G to provide the defense, which it did. USF & G also hired separate counsel to defend O & M. Between October 1996 and November 1997, USF & G paid approximately $197,000 for Alfalfa's defense. In 1997 USF & G paid its policy limit of $1 million into court, and then was discharged in an interpleader action upon a finding that it had exhausted its policy limits. At that point USF & G's duty to defend Alfalfa ended under the policy. USF & G withdrew its defense and Federated thereafter paid all Alfalfa's defense costs. Federated has never denied that it has a

37 P.3d 831
duty to defend Alfalfa; it asserts only that it had no duty to do so until after USF & G exhausted its policy limits

¶ 6 USF & G filed this declaratory judgment action in United States District Court in Kansas, seeking reimbursement from Federated under theories of contribution and equitable subrogation for half the defense costs it paid for Alfalfa. In denying Federated's motion for summary judgment, the District Court purportedly relied on this Court's decision in Republic Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Fire Ins. Exchange, 1982 OK 67, 655 P.2d 544, in support of its conclusion that Oklahoma would recognize USF & G's claim for proportionate reimbursement of defense costs from Federated under equitable subrogation where each had a duty to defend the insured. USF & G v. Federated Rural Electric, 78 F.Supp.2d 1172 (D.Kan.1999). Based on that ruling the District Court ultimately held USF & G was entitled to reimbursement from Federated, and entered judgment in favor of USF & G for half its costs of defending Alfalfa ($98,525). U.S.F. & G. v. Federated Rural Electric, 78 F.Supp.2d 1176(D.Kan.1999). It is the judgment in this latter case that Federated has appealed to the 10th Circuit, resulting in the question certified for our response.

¶ 7 The appeal itself is not before us for decision, and it is outside our province to apply our response to the facts of the litigation before the certifying federal court. It is the entirely the task of that court to analyze our answer for application to its case. McDonald v. Schreiner, 2001 OK 58, 28 P.3d 574.

I. INSURANCE — PRIMARY AND EXCESS

¶ 8 In addressing the issues involved in these questions it is important to understand the insurance terms and underlying concepts, and therefore the following overview is offered. Primary insurance provides immediate coverage for the insured upon the occurrence of a loss or the happening of an event which, under the terms of the policy, gives rise to immediate liability. In the context of liability insurance a primary insurer generally has the primary duty to defend and indemnify the insured unless specific language in the policy provides otherwise. An excess insurance policy is one which by its terms provides coverage that is secondary to the primary coverage; there is usually no obligation to the insured until after the primary coverage limits have been exhausted. Equity Mutual v. Spring Valley Wholesale Nursery, Inc., 1987 OK 121, 747 P.2d 947; Insurance Company of North America v. American Economy Insurance Co., 746 F.Supp. 59 (W.D.Okla.1990).

II. EQUITABLE SUBROGATION

¶ 9 Subrogation is a derivative concept, and is of two types: equitable (or legal) and conventional (or contractual.) Conventional subrogation is created by an agreement or contract between parties granting the right to pursue reimbursement from a third party in exchange for payment of a loss. Equitable subrogation, on the other hand, does not depend upon a contract but arises by implication in equity to prevent an injustice. The latter doctrine is based on the relationship of the parties and equitable principles of establishing substantial justice, and it is broad enough to include every instance where one person who is not a mere volunteer, pays a debt for which another is primarily answerable, and which in equity and good conscience should have been discharged by the latter. Sexton v. Continental Cas. Co., 1991 OK 84, 816 P.2d 1135, 1138; Thurston National Ins. Co. v. Zurich Ins. Co., 296 F.Supp. 619 (W.D.Okla.); Texas Employers Ins. v. Underwriting Members of Lloyds, 836 F.Supp. 398 (S.D.Texas 1993); Farmers Alliance Ins. Co. v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 74 F.3d 1249 (10th Cir.1996).

¶ 10 In this insurance context, a claim based on equitable subrogation allows an insurer who has paid coverage to stand in the shoes of the insured and pursue recovery from a third party primarily responsible for the insured's loss which the insurer both insured and reimbursed. Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. v. Maryland Casualty Co., 65 Cal. App.4th 1279, 77 Cal.Rptr.2d 296, 302 (1998). The doctrine is an equitable effort to shift the entire cost burden, as it relieves entirely

37 P.3d 832
the insurer who paid the loss but was not responsible for it, and places the entire burden on the party ultimately responsible for the loss and who should pay it, and whose equitable position is inferior to the paying insurer. Maryland Cas. Co. v. Nationwide Mut. Ins., 81 Cal.App.4th 1082, 97 Cal. Rptr.2d 374, 377 (2000)

¶ 11 Equitable subrogation between insurers is commonly used as a vehicle to shift defense costs between primary and excess insurers. In its application the doctrine generally works to shift costs from the excess insurer to the primary insurer, because the primary insurer is primarily responsible to defend the insured, and the excess insurer usually has the superior equitable position. Maryland Cas. v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., supra.

III. EQUITABLE CONTRIBUTION

¶ 12 Even a cursory reading of judicial decisions in this area reveals a great deal of confusion in the courts about the equitable doctrines of subrogation and contribution,...

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35 practice notes
  • Brown v. Patel, No. 102,402.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Oklahoma
    • March 27, 2007
    ...pursue reimbursement from a third party in exchange for payment of a loss. U.S. Fidelity and Guar. Co. v. Federated Rural Elec. Ins. Corp., 2001 OK 81, ¶ 9, 37 P.3d 828, 831. Equitable subrogation allows a party who has paid to stand in the shoes of the party to whom the amount was owed and......
  • Nucor Corp. v. Emp'rs Ins. Co. of Wausau, Nos. 1 CA–CV 10–0174
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Arizona
    • April 23, 2013
    ...the same insured and the same particular risk at the same level of coverage.” U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Federated Rural Elect. Ins. Corp., 37 P.3d 828, 832, ¶ 13 (Okla.2001).16 ¶ 38 Arizona courts apply a four-part test to determine whether an insurer will be required to contribute to anothe......
  • Emhart Industries, Inc. v. Home Ins. Co., C.A. No. 02-53 S.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island
    • September 26, 2007
    ...the Excess Policy does not lie until Emhart does so. See, e.g., United States Fidelity & Guar. Co. v. Federated Rural Elec. Ins. Corp., 37 P.3d 828, 833 (Okla.2001) ("Most courts reject the argument ... that if a claim against the insured is for a sum greater than the primary coverage the e......
  • Canal Ins. Co. v. Montello, Inc., Case No. 10-CV-411-JHP-TLW
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. Northern District of Oklahoma
    • December 19, 2013
    ...indemnify the insured unless specific language in the policy provides otherwise.U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Federated Rural Elec. Ins. Corp., 37 P.3d 828, 831 (Okla. 2001). The remaining policies at issue in this litigation have been characterized as both excess and umbrella insurance policies......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
35 cases
  • Brown v. Patel, No. 102,402.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Oklahoma
    • March 27, 2007
    ...pursue reimbursement from a third party in exchange for payment of a loss. U.S. Fidelity and Guar. Co. v. Federated Rural Elec. Ins. Corp., 2001 OK 81, ¶ 9, 37 P.3d 828, 831. Equitable subrogation allows a party who has paid to stand in the shoes of the party to whom the amount was owed and......
  • Nucor Corp. v. Emp'rs Ins. Co. of Wausau, Nos. 1 CA–CV 10–0174
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Arizona
    • April 23, 2013
    ...the same insured and the same particular risk at the same level of coverage.” U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Federated Rural Elect. Ins. Corp., 37 P.3d 828, 832, ¶ 13 (Okla.2001).16 ¶ 38 Arizona courts apply a four-part test to determine whether an insurer will be required to contribute to anothe......
  • Emhart Industries, Inc. v. Home Ins. Co., C.A. No. 02-53 S.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island
    • September 26, 2007
    ...the Excess Policy does not lie until Emhart does so. See, e.g., United States Fidelity & Guar. Co. v. Federated Rural Elec. Ins. Corp., 37 P.3d 828, 833 (Okla.2001) ("Most courts reject the argument ... that if a claim against the insured is for a sum greater than the primary coverage the e......
  • Canal Ins. Co. v. Montello, Inc., Case No. 10-CV-411-JHP-TLW
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 10th Circuit. Northern District of Oklahoma
    • December 19, 2013
    ...indemnify the insured unless specific language in the policy provides otherwise.U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Federated Rural Elec. Ins. Corp., 37 P.3d 828, 831 (Okla. 2001). The remaining policies at issue in this litigation have been characterized as both excess and umbrella insurance policies......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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