Alabama Supreme Court Holds PRP Letter Triggers Duty to Defend

In its recent decision in Travelers Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Ala. Gas Corp., 2012 Ala. LEXIS 174 (Ala. Dec. 28, 2012), the Supreme Court of Alabama addressed for the first time whether a PRP letter from the EPA qualifies as a “suit” for the purpose of triggering a duty to defend under a general liability policy.
The issue was certified by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, which presented the Supreme Court of Alabama with the following question:
Under Alabama law, is a ‘Potentially Responsible Party’ (‘PRP’) letter from the Environmental Protection Agency (‘EPA’), in accordance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (‘CERCLA’) provisions, sufficient to satisfy the ‘suit’ requirement under a liability policy of insurance?
The insured sought coverage under some forty years of general liability coverage issued during the 1940s through the 1980s.  The policies required the insurers to defend any suit alleging “injury, death, damage, or destruction and seeking damages on account thereof, even if such suit is groundless, false, or fraudulent.”  In October 2008, the insured received an informational request from the EPA.  The insurers took the position that the request for information did not rise to the level of a claim or suit triggering coverage under the policies.  In June 2009, after having informally identified the insured as the primary PRP, the EPA issued a formal PRP letter to the insured along with a draft Administrative Order on Consent.  The insured demanded a defense in connection with the PRP letter, which was denied on the basis that the letter did not qualify as a suit that would trigger a defense obligation.
Observing that the term “suit” was not defined in the policies, the court reasoned that the term must be defined “according to the meaning a person of ordinary intelligence reasonably would afford it in regard to the insurance contract at issue and the statutory and regulatory scheme that exists for the enforcement of applicable environmental laws, including the imposition of liability under those laws.”   Looking to case law throughout the country as well as expert commentary, the court sided with what it viewed to be the majority rule that a PRP letter does constitute a suit, citing to decisions such as those by highest courts of Michigan, Massachusetts and Nebraska in Millers Mutual Insurance Co. v. Bronson Plating Co., 519 N.W.2d 864 (1994); Hazen Paper Co. v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 555 N.E.2d 576 (1990) and Dutton-Lainson Co. v. Continental Ins. Co., 778 N.W.2d 433 (2010).
Central to the court’s holding was that in light of the EPA’s broad enforcement powers and “[g]iven the severe penalties for failure to cooperate and other enforcement tools available to the EPA, a decision by the EPA to designate an insured as a PRP cannot on any practical level be understood as anything less that the initiation of a ‘legal action’ constituting a ‘suit’ within the contemplation of the insurance contract at issue.”  Thus, reasoned the court, the term “suit” should not be limited only to matters that proceed in court, but instead should encompass broader legal actions and proceedings, such as regulatory proceedings under CERCLA.