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Burning the LimitsThis issue recently came up with a client who did not want a ‘burning’ the limits attorney malpractice policy.  The client went no further than the insurance proposal coversheet to come to a conclusion.  In this case the client assumed (wrongly) that Claims Expenses Outside the Limits meant that there was no separate coverage for defense costs.  Which would be a ‘Burning’ the Limits Policy.

It is bad enough that Attorney Malpractice policies are not standard.  But ‘Burning’ the limits is insurance slang that is not defined in any malpractice policy.   What is defined is Claims Expenses Outside the Limits (CEOL) and/or Claims Expenses Inside the Limits (CEIL).   

The purpose of CEOL is to provide a separate liability limit for claims expenses to help preserve the primary liability limit.  The other Lawyers Professional Liability Insurance Policy liability option is Claims Expenses Inside the limits (CEIL).   With CEIL, every dollar used for claims expenses reduces the liability limit by a dollar.  This is why it can be called ‘Burning’ the liability limit or a ‘Burning’ Limits Policy.

CEOL is not created equal.  Different insurance carriers offer different options for CEOL:

1.       The CEOL limit equals the primary limit of liability, sometimes called “Full” CEOL.

2.       The CEOL limits is for a lessor set amount and may vary based on the liability limit chosen.  This is sometimes called “Limited” CEOL.

3.       The CEOL limit is equal to the primary limit of liability up to a certain amount and is capped after the limit of liability exceeds a certain limit.  This is often $1,000,000.

4.       The CEOL limit has no cap for claims expenses or unlimited CEOL.

How CEOL works:

CEOL pays for the claims expenses up to the limit set for CEOL.  Once the CEOL limit is exhausted, the primary liability limit continues to be reduced until the primary limit is exhausted either through a combination of claims expenses or indemnity payments.

Having CEOL is not a substitute for having a liability limit sufficient to pay the indemnity costs of what a potential claim could cost.   A low primary liability limit makes no sense, if it is not enough to cover potential indemnity payments even with the purchase of CEOL.   Remember once the primary liability limit is exhausted the lawyers professional liability insurance carrier’s obligation is done.  For example, the law firm is carrying a $100,000 limit of liability with CEOL.  A claim is made against the firm that is evaluated to cost $200,000 by the malpractice insurer’s claims department.  The insurer is likely going to cut its losses and write a check for $100,000.  This would leave the firm fending for itself for any remaining defense and indemnity costs even if there is a CEOL liability coverage not used.

Other Considerations:

Plaintiff attorneys also need to be aware of the type of liability policy that a firm carries.  Many times this is the only substantial asset for the defendant.  The plaintiff lawyer who engages in "scorched earth" litigation over an extended period of time may actually leave the plaintiff attorney’s client without a viable source of recovery.  In this sense, ‘burning’ limits insurance policies may encourage plaintiffs and their counsel to resolve matters earlier than they might otherwise.

This school of thought might have some attorneys seeking lower limits with CEIL because they believe this will produce lower settlements if sued.  This may or may not be true given specific facts and circumstances.   It could a very risky approach to save money for insurance coverage, only to spend many times that amount to cover the actual assessed damages for inadequate liability limits.

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