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Under Massachusetts Law, an Insurance Company Still Owes Certain Duties to a Third-Party Claimant, Despite Professional Insured’s Refusal to Consent to Settle

Although you might not realize it if you were watching a Cape Cod personal injury case play out in a court room, the vast majority of negligence claims are actually paid by an insurance company, not the defendant himself or herself. Many negligence cases are settled out of court, but, even if a particular case proceeds to a jury trial, it is usually the defendant’s insurance company – not the defendant – who writes the check that satisfies the verdict.

Thus, the actual defendant typically does not have a say in the amount of the settlement or even input as to whether there will be a settlement. The insurance company bears the ultimately financial obligation, so the insurance company controls most of the litigation.

There are some special cases, however, in which the defendant has more of say in the matter. While it all depends on the language in the insurance contract, it is more often a “professional” defendant – such as doctor, lawyer, or engineer, whose professional reputation or even licensure could be affected by an admission of liability – who has an active role in a negligence lawsuit.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiffs were a couple who filed suit against an engineer who had allegedly committed certain design errors for which the plaintiffs sought monetary compensation. Against the recommendation of the engineer’s professional liability insurance company, the engineer refused to consent to a proposed settlement. The couple then sued the insurance company, seeking relief under Massachusetts General Laws ch. 176D, § 3(9)(f). The insurance company moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claim against it.

The trial court granted the insurance company’s motion after finding that the consent-to-settle clause in the engineer’s liability policy limited the insurance company’s ability to engage in further settlement practices with the plaintiffs after the engineer refused to give the insurance company consent to settle the claims against him. The plaintiffs appealed. While the matter was pending in the Massachusetts  Appeals Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case on its own initiative.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s Holding

On appeal, the court affirmed the lower tribunal’s order, holding that, while a consent-to-settle clause in a professional liability policy does not, as a matter of law, violate ch. 176D, § 3(9)(f), an insurance company who is a party to such a policy still has certain residual duties to a third-party claimant when an insured refuses to settle. Applying this holding to the case at bar, the court ruled that the insurance company had made good faith efforts to investigate the plaintiffs’ claim and to encourage its insured to settle. The court also noted that, given the engineer’s “obstinacy,” the shortcomings of the insurance company (as complained of by the plaintiffs) did not proximately cause them harm.

To Get Help With a Cape Cod Personal Injury Case

Professional negligence can take many forms. Just as engineers be held liable for mistakes in design, doctors and healthcare providers are accountable for breaches of the standard of care owed to patients when their mistakes proximately cause damages like increased medical costs, lost time from work, or pain and suffering. To get advice about a Cape Cod professional malpractice or medical malpractice claim, please set up an appointment to discuss your situation with the Law Offices of John C. Manoog III. You can use the “contact us” link on this website, or you can phone us at 888-262-6664. Like other negligence cases, lawsuits seeking compensation for professional malpractice are subject to strict statute of limitations, so don’t put off talking to a lawyer about your case or your claim could be time-barred.