Reservation of Rights Letters: What are They and What Should You Do if Your Association Receives One?

By Lindsay J. Anderson, Esq.

Your Association gets sued by a homeowner. You reach out to your insurance company to let them know about the lawsuit then you sit back and relax because insurance is going to cover everything, right? Do not get too comfortable!

Insurance companies may not cover everything, or anything, that you believe they should. How do you know what the carrier is going to cover during the course of this particular lawsuit? Look no further than the reservation of rights (“ROR”) letter. Your insurance company is required by law to provide you, as its insured, with a reservation of rights letter detailing all possible limitations on coverage that the insurer may rely on in connection with adjusting the claim or suit.

Basic Definitions

Before we can understand what the insurance company is saying in its ROR letter, we need to understand the jargon that’s typically included in the letter. The following definitions provide the basics.

  • Duty to Defend: Used to describe an insurer’s obligation to provide you with a defense to claims made under an insurance policy. As a general rule, an insurer’s duty to defend you arises when there is potential for coverage under a policy.
  • Duty to Indemnify: Used to describe an insurer’s obligation to pay the claim, by funding a settlement or paying a judgment against the insured. Unlike the duty to defend, which is typically determined at the outset of the litigation, the duty to indemnify arises when the facts establish that there is a covered loss under the policy.
  • Tender: Under the terms of your insurance policy, you must give your insurance carrier notice of any claim or suit being made against the Association. Such notice includes a demand for defense (i.e., duty to defend) and indemnity (i.e., duty to indemnify) under the policy.
  • Trigger or Coverage Trigger: Refers to the event that must occur before a liability policy applies to a given loss.

What is a Reservation of Rights Letter?

The ROR letter will be a letter from your insurance company which notifies you of the carrier’s coverage position, including any limitations on coverage that may act as a complete or partial bar to coverage. The ROR letter also affords the insurer an opportunity to undertake a more thorough factual investigation into the claim without waiving its rights to deny or limit coverage at a later date.

ROR letters vary in form depending upon the insurance company but, in general, include a summary of the factual background surrounding the current claim, a detailed analysis of the applicable insuring agreement and applicable exclusions (i.e., intentional acts, breach of contract, no monetary damages being sought) and endorsements which may impact coverage, a reservation of rights, and, in some instances, a denial of coverage for some or all of the claims. Since ROR letters may be long and winding with insurance terms and phrases peppered throughout, they are difficult to understand.

What are the Insurance Company’s Duties (Refer to Definitions Above)?

The duties of an insurance company are set forth in the Insuring Agreement section of the policy. Typically, an insurer has two distinct duties – the “duty to defend” and the “duty to indemnify.” In California, the duty to defend is “triggered” when there is any possibility, no matter how remote, that the claim would be covered under the policy. Where your carrier defends an entire action where only a portion of the claims are covered, the carrier may seek reimbursement from you for any defense fees and costs incurred in defending the non-covered claims.

Under the typical scenario where an insured is faced with a third-party claim for monetary damages, the carrier is obligated to defend the action if, under the facts known, there is a possibility of coverage under the policy. Once a carrier’s defense obligations have been “triggered”, the carrier is obligated to hire counsel, retain experts, investigate the claim, pay defense costs, and defend the case through disposition.

The duty to indemnify is the insurance company’s duty to pay any monetary judgment (i.e., damages) rendered against an insured for a covered loss. A carrier’s indemnity obligations are limited by the terms of the insurance contract and should be detailed in the ROR letter.

Why is an ROR Letter Important?

California’s insurance regulations require an insurance company to provide you with a written response to a request for defense and/or indemnity. That response typically comes in the form of the ROR letter which puts you on notice of any limitations or exclusions to coverage. Knowing what is, and more importantly what is not, covered under the policy is crucial to making strategic decisions regarding the handling of the claim. By way of example, the ROR letter can assist the Association and its defense counsel in evaluating a settlement demand and determining whether or not it is in the Association’s best interests to settle a claim. However, it is worth noting that the decision to settle typically rests entirely with the insurance company.

The ROR letter is also how an insurance company reserves its rights to either deny or limit coverage under the policy and to recover defense fees and costs expended in connection with the defense or settlement of uncovered claims. Under California law, the carrier’s coverage defenses may be waived where the insured relies upon the carrier’s failure to specifically reserve its rights under the policy.

What Should You Do if Your Association Receives an ROR Letter?

Receiving an ROR letter from an insurance company may feel intimidating. However, knowing what to do and what to look for when you receive an ROR letter are crucial in getting a handle on the carrier’s coverage determination.

  1. Your first step when you receive an ROR letter should be to share it with your attorney.
  2. The next step is to carefully review the policy exclusions and endorsements and discuss them with your insurance professional so that you can work within your budget to buy the broadest coverage available.