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COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA v. UNITED STATES FID. & GUAR

June 16, 1994

COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES FIDELITY AND GUARANTY COMPANY, et al., Defendants.


WARE


The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES WARE

Plaintiff County of Santa Clara ("County") and Co-Defendant United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company ("USF&G") together move for partial summary judgment against Co-Defendant Employers Reinsurance Corporation ("ERC") and USF&G alone moves for a Court determination that the comprehensive settlement agreement between the County and USF&G has been made in good faith within the meaning of California Code of Civil Procedure section 877.6. The two motions were submitted to the Court for determination after oral argument was heard on May 20, 1994.

 I. BACKGROUND

 This action arises out of the alleged mercury contamination of the Almaden Quicksilver County Park ("the Park"). The County purchased six parcels of Park property on July 19, 1973. The County purchased another three parcels of Park property on June 20, 1975. The County has alleged that the Park has been damaged by mercury contamination during the Defendants' policy periods. The County is subject to a Remedial Action Order ("RAO") issued by a California environmental agency in 1987. The RAO calls for the County to remediate the property damage in the Park at an estimated cost of $ 1.8 to $ 7 million.

 In March 1993, after tendering defense of the environmental action to its insurers, the County filed a Complaint against USF&G, the primary insurance carrier for the County regarding this dispute, and other umbrella and excess insurers, alleging claims for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and declaratory relief.

 On November 1, 1993, the Court entered partial summary judgment in favor of the County and against USF&G. The Court found that USF&G had a duty to defend the County and to pay the County's post-tender defense costs.

 Subsequently, the parties were directed to meet with Magistrate Judge Edward A. Infante to determine the amount of post-tender defense costs. After the conference with Magistrate Judge Infante, the County and USF&G agreed to a three-part settlement. The settlement resolved 1) the issue of post-tender defense costs, 2) the bad faith claim, and 3) that the County will settle all other claims against USF&G in exchange for $ 500,000 - USF&G's maximum potential property damage indemnity obligation. However, this third part of the settlement is conditional upon the County and USF&F receiving favorable rulings from the Court on the two pending motions, i.e., that the above-described settlement was made in good faith, and that the County is now entitled to a defense by ERC under the terms of the ERC umbrella policy.

 At Judge Infante's suggestion, USF&G has deposited the $ 500,000 into an escrow account. If the Court grants these two motions, the money will be released to the County, and USF&G hopes to "walk away" from the dispute, leaving the County to be defended by ERC. If the Court denies these motions, the funds will be returned to USF&G and the third part of the settlement will have failed.

 II. THE ANOMALY OF ENVIRONMENTAL "SETTLEMENTS"

 This action puts a unique twist on the common legal issue of good faith settlements and the duty to defend. In a typical tort action, there is usually a "claim" for a knowable amount of "damages," or a "judgment" that can be settled or satisfied. The judgment or settlement is paid to the third party claimant and this amount, along with the costs of defense, are tendered to the insured's primary insurer.

 In this case, technically speaking, there is no "settlement," and there may never be one. The County is under an obligation to comply with the state-issued RAO. The estimated clean-up costs and oversight fees are between $ 1.8 to $ 7 million dollars. While the County may recover some amount of money in the form of contribution from previous owners and/or polluters of the property, at this moment, the County is liable for the costs of remediation.

 In order to obtain money to pay for part of the remediation, the County has agreed to settle its claim with USF&G for the full $ 500,000 policy limit and for reimbursement of all post-tender defense costs through the date of the settlement. In exchange, USF&G believes it will have extinguished its defense and indemnity obligations to the County. The County, caning only that ...


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