Florida court rules that auto insurer cannot invoke exceptions to the Eight Corners Rule to avoid duty to defend visibly drunk driver
A liability insurer’s duty to defend a third-party lawsuit in Florida is triggered when the complaint against the insured alleges facts that potentially bring the action within the policy’s coverage grant. Like courts in other jurisdictions, Florida courts generally apply the eight corners rule that restricts the court’s analysis of the issue to the terms in the four corners of the policy and the allegations inside the four corners of the complaint.
However, there are two exceptions to the eight corners rule recognized by Florida courts. In a limited set of cases, the court may consider facts outside the complaint to decide whether the insurer must continue to defend a lawsuit against the insured.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida’s recent decision in Empire Fire & Marine Insurance Co. v. Span et al., No. 19-cv-61102, 2021 WL 2255127 (S.D. Fla. June 3, 2021) provides a roadmap for insurers to follow when invoking these exceptions. In Span, the insured rented a car from Enterprise. He purchased a supplemental liability policy at the counter that provided coverage for accidents while the insured operated the rented vehicle. The policy excluded coverage for losses caused by an accident occurring while the insured drives while intoxicated (“DWI exclusion”). The insured crashed the rental car into another vehicle. When the police arrived at the scene, they found the insured sleeping at the wheel and smelling of alcohol. The insured had bloodshot and watery eyes. He also failed the roadside sobriety tests. However, he refused to take breathalyzer and blood tests to determine whether he was operating the car while legally intoxicated.
The injured plaintiffs filed suit against the insured. The complaint alleged only that the insured’s negligent operation of the vehicle caused the accident. The complaint did not allege that the insured had consumed alcohol before the accident or contend that he was intoxicated when the accident occurred. The insurer agreed to defend under a reservation of rights. The insurer then filed a declaratory judgment action asserting that the DWI exclusion relieved the insurer of the duty to defend. The insurer moved for summary judgment, arguing that undisputed facts outside the complaint were sufficient to trigger the DWI exclusion, and therefore, the policy did not obligate the insurer to defend the lawsuit.
The Court denied the insurer’s motion. The Court rejected the insurer’s argument that extrinsic facts established that the DWI exclusion negated the duty to defend. The Court limited its analysis to the complaint’s allegations and declined to look at facts outside the complaint. The Court found that “the complaint alleges nothing from which this Court might reasonably infer that Span was drunk when he crashed into the state-court plaintiffs.” Id. at * 4. The Court thus relied on the eight corners rule despite evidence indicating that the insured was indeed driving while intoxicated when the accident occurred.
Although the Court ruled against the insurer, the Court reaffirmed that Florida courts have adopted two exceptions to the eight corners rule. First, the Court noted that the Florida Supreme Court permits consideration of extrinsic evidence “where an insurer’s claim that there is no duty to defend is based on factual issues that would not normally be alleged in the underlying complaint.” Id. at *4 (quoting Higgins v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., 894 So. 2d 5, 10 (Fla. 2004)). The Court offered examples when this exception could apply, such as where the plaintiff is unlikely to allege in the complaint that the defendant failed to give proper notice of the claim, that the defendant was not an insured under the policy, or that the insured knew of circumstances that could give rise to the claim when applying for coverage. In such cases, plaintiff would not plead these factual issues because they are immaterial to the liability case.
Nevertheless, the Court found that the first exception did not apply in this case. The Court stated that “[u]nlike the sort of allegation a plaintiff would have no reason to add to its state-court complaint – like whether the defendant properly notified its insurer of a potential claim – the crucial fact in question here (that Span was drunk when he crashed into the plaintiffs) is precisely the kind of allegation that would be included in that complaint.” Id. at 5 (emph. added). Thus, the Court concluded that this first exception was of no help to the insurer.
The Court also discussed the second exception to the eight corners rule. The Court observed that “Florida courts have found ‘that in special circumstances, a court may consider extrinsic facts if those facts are undisputed, and, had they been pled in the complaint, they clearly would have placed the claims outside the scope of coverage.’” Id. (quoting Stephens v. Mid-Continent Cas. Co. 749, F.3d 1318, 1323 (11th Cir. 2014). The Court reasoned that the purpose of this exception is to prevent the plaintiff from excluding crucial undisputed facts from the complaint hoping to trigger coverage where clearly none exists under the policy.
The Court held that the insurer also could not rely on the second exception. According to the Court, the insured’s intoxication at the time of the accident was neither clear nor undisputed. The Court stated that there was no concrete evidence to prove that the insured was intoxicated. The insured had refused the breathalyzer and blood tests, and had not been convicted of DUI. Furthermore, the insured claimed that he was not intoxicated at the time of the accident. The Court emphasized that the insurer failed to show that plaintiffs “purposefully omitted Span’s drunkenness from the state-court complaint as a way of pleading themselves into coverage.” Id. at *6.
Consequently, the Court held neither exception applied, and the insurer must defend the lawsuit based on the allegations of the complaint.
As this case shows, the outcome of a duty-to-defend dispute in Florida occasionally turns on facts outside the complaint. Under the eight corners rule, the parties are generally confined to the allegations, because the material facts outside the complaint are either disputed or simply uncertain until the resolution of the underlying case. The Court reaffirmed that Florida courts must not apply the eight-corners rule in every case. At the same time however, the Court resisted applying either exception to the rule despite compelling extrinsic evidence establishing that the policy excluded coverage. The takeaway from the decision is that insurers can invoke these exceptions, but in a limited set of cases, when the actual indisputable facts clearly show that coverage could not possibly apply to the claims however alleged in the lawsuit.