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Washington Supreme Court rules insurers liable for agent’s actions

In a case that’s been closely watched by the insurance industry, Washington’s State Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed that insurers are liable for the illegal actions of their agents.

“The ruling is a big win for consumers,” said Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, whose decision the case was challenging. “If you allow someone to do business on your behalf, it only stands to reason that you can be held responsible for what they do.”

The case involved violations of the state’s insurance laws in 2006 and 2007 by an insurance agency appointed by Chicago Title Insurance Company. That agency, Land Title Co. of Kitsap County, Inc. repeatedly offered illegal inducements to get business. The violations included illegally “wining and dining” real estate agents, builders and mortgage lenders with free meals, donations for a golf tournament, monthly advertising, and Seattle Seahawks playoff game tickets.

Although Land Title was Chicago Title’s exclusive agent in the Washington counties at issue in the case, Chicago Title argued that it was not responsible for its agent’s actions. In a consent order signed in 2009, the company agreed to pay a $48,334 fine if it did not prevail in court.

“Chicago Title’s arguments were contrary to a century of insurance law,” said Kreidler. “In order to effectively regulate insurers and protect consumers, it’s important to hold insurers responsible for the actions of their agents.”

Title insurance practices have long been a concern to Kreidler, whose office in 2005 scrutinized 18 months of employee expense reports and ledgers for the largest title companies in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The examination found many cases in which the companies were providing gifts, golf tournament sponsorships, parties, ski trips, sports tickets, meals and other inducements to get business.

“Few people shop for title insurance, although they certainly can,” said Kreidler. “It tends to be included in the large stack of documents that homeowners are handed to sign. So title companies and others in the industry are positioned to steer business to particular insurers.”

New rules took effect in March 2009, clearly outlining what can be given. There are limits on advertising, donations to trade associations, meals, training, leasing workspace and gifts.

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