In all of our relationships, either business or personal, we establish trust — at some level — in one another. In some cases, we have trust thrust upon us. In other cases, we have to earn it.
Promises, implied or explicit, are routinely made between us. They can be written, spoken or assumed. We often depend on these promises to make other decisions. If the promise-maker breaks their promise, distrust, catastrophe and chaos can ensue.
A few months ago, Argentina defaulted on one of its debt payments. Last year, Detroit was forced into bankruptcy and has defaulted on and renegotiated its obligations.
General Motors recalled thousands of cars in the past 12 months. Another company, somewhere, failed to meet a supply agreement and shipped parts below specifications. Someone, somewhere, broke their marriage vows and filed for divorce. In a bar, someone sits waiting for a companion to arrive, having been stood up.
As a promise receiver, how solid is our due diligence and risk management when it comes to accepting promises at face value?
Why do we make promises and then break them? Do we over-promise? As a promise receiver, how solid is our due diligence and risk management when it comes to accepting promises at face value?
How much faith should we place in someone who makes a promise? Are we deserving of the adverse results that may come from these broken promises?
How much responsibility should we take when accepting, or relying on the other party’s promises? Can we influence our outcomes by making better partnership decisions?
In the case of Argentina, I find its actions particularly troubling. Its default almost seemed strategic. Its history corroborates this. Strategic defaults are damaging and have cascading adverse effects. The fallout rolls through the banking sector as the default rolls from one bank to another. The result of not collecting interest payments triggers a series of shortages that, like the credit crisis of 2008, jeopardizes our financial security.
Will time and our willingness to forgive allow Argentina to rebuild its credit rating? The answer is probably yes. We tend to minimize past acts and expect or assume that people, countries and companies will become good corporate citizens and do the right thing and fulfill their obligations.
GM has had a recent rash of recalls. It may have known about the issues or not, but either way, cars with defects were shipped.
I do, however, respect the fact that GM owned its failures and has done what’s right for the customer. I also expect GM consumers will rationalize and forgive GM its transgressions and hope they get it right next time.
In all the above relationships, what I find interesting is that trust and faith are the underpinning elements of a risk decision.
The suitor makes himself or herself look desirable and reliable. The borrower trumps up their financial position and presents a rosy, reliable, responsible outlook. The manufacturer boasts about integrity and quality initiatives.
If a partner of high integrity and quality fails me, I am sympathetic. Sometimes the circumstance of the breach is beyond our control and we fall victim to a series of events that are like dominos falling.
The decisions we make and the partners we trust have a direct impact on risk and the outcomes we expect and realize.
As we strive to make the best partnership decisions, we should look more into the history, character and integrity of those sitting across the table.
We will make better choices and produce better outcomes by doing so.
Legal Spotlight: October 1, 2014
Firms Given More Control Over Independent Counsel
Signal Products Inc. manufactured handbags and luggage using a design known as the “Quattro G Pattern executive in brown/beige colorways,” in accordance with its license from Guess? Inc.
In 2009, Gucci America Inc. filed suit against Guess?, Signal and others, claiming the design “infringed on a distinctive Gucci trade dress known as the ‘Diamond Motif Trade Dress.’ ” Signal’s share of the infringement claim was $1.8 million.
Signal filed suit in U.S. District Court in California after its insurers — American Zurich Insurance Co., which had issued a primary commercial general liability policy, and American Guarantee and Liability Insurance Co., which had issued an umbrella liability policy — refused to pay $1.9 million in defense costs.
Zurich countersued, seeking a summary judgment that it was not required to reimburse Signal for a $750,000 interim legal payment to the primary legal firm retained by Guess? (of a total $1.9 million in fees for Signal) or for $1.2 million in legal fees for a second law firm that represented Signal in the action.
The insurers argued they were not required to pay fees to the second law firm because Signal had already retained another law firm to represent it, and that the fees were not incurred in connection with Signal’s defense.
U.S. Judge Christina Snyder in August rejected requests from both sides for summary judgment, ruling more information was needed to determine reasonableness of legal fees and other “genuine issues of disputed material fact.”
However, she did rule, in this case of first impression, that Signal could use more than one law firm as independent counsel when there is a potential conflict of interest in insurance cases.
“Having accepted that multiple attorneys may serve as … counsel, there does not appear to be any principled grounds for requiring as a matter of law that all of those attorneys need to be employed at the same law firm,” she wrote.
Scorecard: The insurers may have to pay up to $1.2 million to the second of two law firms, in addition to possibly having to pay up to $1.9 million in litigation costs to the primary firm.
Takeaway: California law allows an insured to retain more than one law firm as independent counsel in an insurance dispute.
Attorneys’ Fees Not Included in Damages Exclusion
Both actions were settled by PNC: One in 2010 for $12 million — which included $3 million in attorneys’ fees, $77,857 in costs and expenses, and $15,000 toward incentive fees for the representative plaintiffs — and one in 2012 for $90 million, including $27 million for attorneys’ fees, $183,302 for reimbursement of costs, and $30,000 in plaintiffs’ incentive awards.
On May 21, a U.S. judge in the Western District of Pennsylvania recommended that the insurers cover the settlement costs. Both Houston Casualty Co. and Axis Insurance Co. had issued policies with a $25 million liability limit, subject to a $25 million retention.
In June, U.S. Judge Cathy Bissoon in that district disagreed. She ruled that the insurers were not responsible for the part of the settlements that returned overdraft fees to customers — since fees were excluded from the definition of “damages” in the policy.
Attorneys’ fees and costs totaling $30.3 million, she ruled, were not excluded. She ordered more proceedings on the claims expenses and damages.
Scorecard: Two insurers are responsible to cover up to $30.3 million for attorneys’ fees and costs that were included in settlements of two class-action lawsuits.
Takeaway: The fee exception to damages does not extend to the entirety of settlement costs, particularly attorneys’ fees, costs and incentive awards.
Underwriters Must Pay Recall Costs
When Abbott Laboratories agreed in December 2000 to acquire the global operations of Knoll Pharmaceutical Co., it notified its Lloyd’s of London carriers, in accordance with its product recall insurance coverage. That coverage stated the new entity would automatically be covered, but additional premiums would have to be negotiated.
As part of the negotiation with a group of underwriters led by Beazley and American Specialty Underwriters, Abbott indicated there was no “current situation, fact or circumstance” that would lead to a claim under the Accidental Contamination policy (which would include any government drug recalls).
A premium was eventually paid and accepted in July 2001, even after the company advised the underwriters that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may pull Knoll’s popular thyroid drug Synthroid from the market.
The company and its underwriters did execute in October 2001 a “tolling agreement … that would allow the parties to preserve their rights with respect to any Synthroid-related claims.”
On March 6, 2002, the Italian Ministry of Health suspended all sales and marketing of sibutramine (manufactured by Knoll as Meridia).
Abbott filed a claim under the policy, and on May 16, 2003, the underwriters informed Abbott the tolling agreement was cancelled because Abbott “had not fully responded to their document and information request.” When it asked what information was needed, Abbott received no response.
On June 2, 2003, the underwriters filed suit to rescind the policy, while Abbott countersued for a declaratory judgment for coverage, breach of contract and “vexatious delay damages.”
A judge rejected the underwriters’ claim for recission, noting that the insurers had accepted the additional premium and that the Synthroid situation had been disclosed in a timely manner.
For damages, the court put the company’s losses at $155.2 million. Minus a deductible and 10 percent coinsurance, the underwriters were told to pay $84.5 million, plus about $2.8 million in costs and interest.
A three-judge panel on the Appellate Court of Illinois, First Judicial District, upheld that decision on appeal on July 28.
Scorecard: The underwriters have to pay $84.5 million plus $2.8 million in costs and interest.
Takeaway: By accepting the premium and failing to pursue issues of due diligence, the underwriters undercut their argument for a “material misrepresentation” by the company.
A Dreaming Team
Chris Thorn is known as one of the most creative risk managers in the business. After all, his risk management program hit the cover of Risk & Insurance® in March, 2012.
Now the senior manager, payments and risk, for Southwest Airlines is working with Riskonnect, a technology partner that he thinks can take his program to new heights.
“For us, it’s a platform that gives you so many different tools that if you can dream it, you can build it,” said Thorn.
Thorn ditched his legacy risk management information system in 2012 and started working with Riskonnect, initially using the platform solely for liability claims management.
But the system’s “do-it-yourself” accessibility almost immediately caught the eye of Thorn’s colleagues managing safety risk and workers’ compensation.
“They were seeking a software solution at the time and said, ‘Hey, we want to join the party,” Thorn recalls of his friends in safety and workers’ compensation.
“For us, it’s a platform that gives you so many different tools that if you can dream it, you can build it.”
–Chris Thorn, senior manager, payments and risk, Southwest Airlines
What was making Thorn’s colleagues so jealous was the system’s “smart question” process which allows any supervisor in the company to enter a claim, while at the same time freeing those supervisors from being claims adjusters.
The Riskonnect platform asks questions that direct the claim to the appropriate category without the supervisor having to take on the burden of performing that triage.
“They love it because all of the redundant questions are gone,” Thorn said.
The added beauty of the system, Thorn said, is that allows carriers and TPAs to work right alongside the Southwest team in claims files while maintaining rock-solid cyber security.
“This has sped up the process,” Thorn said.
“Any time you can speed up the process, the more success you’re going to have when you make offers to settle claims,” he said.
Since that initial splash in claims management, the Riskonnect platform has gone on to become a rock star at Southwest in a number of other areas. And as Thorn suggests, the possibilities of the system are limited only by the user’s imagination.
With a little creativity and help from Riskonnect as needed, a risk manager can add on system capabilities without having to go on bended knee to his own information technology department.
In the area of insurance policy management, for example, the Riskonnect platform as built by Thorn now holds data on all property values and exposures that can in turn be downloaded for use by underwriters.
Every time Southwest buys a new airplane, the enterprise platform sends out a notice to the airlines insurance broker, who in turn notifies the 16 or 17 carriers that are on the hull program.
Again, in that “anything’s possible” vein, the system has the capability of notifying the carriers, directly, a tool Thorn said he’s flirting with.
“It is capable of doing that,” he said.
“We’re testing out this functionality before we turn on it loose directly to the insurance companies.”
In alignment with the platform’s muscle in documenting, storing and reporting liability and property exposures, the system monitors and reports on insurance carrier financial strength.
If a rating agency downgrades a Southwest program carrier’s financial strength, for example, the system “pings” Thorn and his colleagues.
“Not only will we know about it, but we will also know all programs, present and past that they participated on, what the open reserves are for those policy years and policies,” Thorn said.
“That gives us even more comfort that we have good, solid financial backing of the insurance policies that are protecting us,” Thorn said.
Like many of us, Chris Thorn didn’t set out to work in risk management and insurance. Thorn is a Certified Public Accountant, and it’s that background that allows him to take creative advantage of the Riskonnect platform’s malleability in yet another way.
With the help of the Riskonnect customer service team, Thorn added a function to the platform that allows him to calculate the cost of insurance policies on a monthly basis, enter them into a general ledger and send them over to his colleagues in accounting.
“It’s very robust on handling financial information, date information, or anything with that much granularity,” Thorn said.
The sky is the limit
Thorn and Southwest are only two years into their relationship with Riskonnect and there are a number of places Thorn thinks the platform can take him that have yet to be explored, but certainly will be.
“It’s basically a repository of anything that’s risk-related, it continues to grow,” Thorn said.
“This has sped up the process. Any time you can speed up the process, the more success you’re going to have when you make offers to settle claims.”
–Chris Thorn, senior manager, payments and risk, Southwest Airlines
Not only have Southwest’s safety and workers’ compensation managers joined Thorn in his work with Riskonnect, business continuity has come knocking as well.
Thorn met in July with members of Southwest Airline’s business continuity team, which has a whole host of concerns, ranging from pandemics to cyber-attacks that it needs help in documenting the exposures and resiliency options for.
That Enterprise Risk Management approach will in the future also involve the system’s capability to provide risk alerts, telling Thorn and his team for example, that a hurricane or fast moving wildfire is threatening one of the company’s facilities.
Supply chain resiliency and managing certificates of insurance for foreign vendors are other areas where Thorn and his team plan to put the Riskonnect platform to good use.
“That’s all stuff that’s being worked on by us,” Thorn said.
“They’ve given us the tools, but we’re trying to develop how we’re going to use it,” he said.