Petitioner insurer requested a writ of mandate to the Superior Court of Los Angeles County (California), which granted respondent insured’s summary adjudication motion, holding that demands, notices and orders constituted a “suit” and that petitioner thus had a duty to defend against claims concerning groundwater contamination.
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The trial court granted respondent insured’s summary adjudication motion, holding that demands, notices and orders were the “functional equivalent” of a “suit” and that, therefore, petitioner insurer had a duty to defend respondent against claims asserted against it by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the United States Environmental Protection Agency concerning groundwater contamination at respondent’s facility. Petitioner requested a writ of mandate, asking the court to decide, “What is a suit?” The policy of insurance stated that petitioner had the right and duty to defend any suit seeking damages against respondent and the right, but not the duty, to “make such investigation and settlement of any claim or suit as it deems expedient.” The court found the policy did not lump suits and claims together, but consistently treated them separately. The court held the agencies’ demands were a “claim” against respondent giving rise to a duty to notify petitioner of its existence so that petitioner could determine whether to investigate and settle that claim. Petitioner’s duty to defend had not been triggered. The court granted the writ.
The court ordered that a peremptory writ of mandate issue commanding the trial court to vacate the order granting respondent insured’s motion for summary adjudication of petitioner insurer’s duty to defend and to enter a new order denying that motion. Under the plain meaning of its policy, petitioner’s duty was to defend suits, not claims, and the agencies’ demands were claims.