Is Eight Enough, Part 3: Texas Supreme Court Rejects District Judge’s Exception to the “Eight Corners Rule”

April 19th, 2020 By Jeffrey C. Glass

We recently wrote about a question, certified to the Texas Supreme Court by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, regarding the continuing validity of the “eight corners” rule.  The U.S. District Court decision under review was one of a series of decisions authored by Judge John McBryde finding that because the eight corners rule originally derived from policy language requiring the carrier to defend claims even “if the allegations of the suit are groundless, false or fraudulent,” policies without such language were not subject to the rule. State Farm Lloyds v. Richards, 4:17-CV-753-A, 2018 WL 2225084, at *1 (N.D. Tex. May 15, 2018).  As Eric Peabody noted in his post here, the Supreme Court expected skepticism in argument on the matter. And n March 20, 2020, the Court issued its decision rejecting this interpretation and affirming the continuing viability of the eight corners rule under modern CGL policies. Richards v. State Farm Lloyds, 19-0802, — S.W.3d –, 2020 WL 1313782 (Tex. Mar. 20, 2020).

The underlying suit was a state court action involving Jayden Meals, who was killed in an all-terrain vehicle accident while under the care of his grandparents, the Richards. Jayden’s mother sued the Richards in state court alleging they were negligent in failing to supervise him and the Richards sought a defense from State Farm Lloyds under their homeowner’s policy. State Farm filed a declaratory judgment suit in federal court, asserting it had no duty to defend or indemnify the Richards under the policy’s motor vehicle exclusion and the exclusion for bodily injury to an insured. In the coverage case, State Farm filed a summary judgment motion relying on evidence outside the eight corners of policy and petition (“extrinsic evidence”) showing the accident occurred off-premises, as required by the motor vehicle exclusion, and that Jayden was a resident of the insured household and thus an insured under the insured exclusion. 

Is the policy-language exception to the eight-corners rule articulated in B. Hall Contracting Inc. v. Evanston Ins. Co., 447 F. Supp. 2d 634 (N.D. Tex. 2006), a permissible exception under Texas law? State Farm Lloyds v. Richards, 18-10721, 2019 WL 4267354, at *3 (5th Cir. Sept. 9, 2019). The B. Hall decision was not otherwise discussed in the opinion, but it was also decided by Judge McBryde, one of a series of similar decisions.[1]

 Noting the paramount influence of policy language on coverage questions, the Supreme Court wrote that parties can contract around the eight corners rule, but that the question raised is “whether these parties have contracted around it by declining to expressly agree that State Farm must defend claims ‘even if groundless, false or fraudulent’.” 2018 WL 2225084, at *4.  The Court agreed with the policyholder that the District Court’s “policy-language exception” was erroneous because Texas decisions applying the eight-corners rule rarely addressed the presence or absence of a groundless-claims clause. Id. Thus, “State Farm did not contract away the eight-corners rule . . . by omitting . . . an express agreement to defend claims that are ‘groundless, false or fraudulent’.”  Id. The Court surveyed the origins of the rule and some of the many cases in which it applied the rule without resort to the groundless-claims clause and the settled nature of the eight corners rule, concluding it “can safely presume” policies are drafted “in light of this understanding.” Id.

 Noting the eight corners rule is an interpretation of the intent of policy contracts, not an amendment of them, the Court attempted to textually derive the rule from the basic insuring clause invoking coverage if “a claim is made or a suit is brought against an insured for damages because of bodily injury … to which this coverage applies.” Id. at *5-6. The attempt is necessarily weak since that policy language does not address the many facets of eight corners interpretation, including limiting the scope of what the “claim” is to a single petition exclusive of other evidence of the actual facts underlying it, as well as the rule requiring courts to resolve doubts about the result in favor of policyholders. E.g., Heyden Newport Chem. Corp. v. Southern Gen. Ins. Co., 387 S.W.2d 22, 26 (Tex.1965) (doubt as to whether complaint’s allegations are within the coverage “will be resolved in insured’s favor”).

In key asides, the Court three times cited or mentioned court-sanctioned exceptions to the eight corners rule, including two mentions of the Fifth Circuit’s Northfield decision, which predicted the Supreme Court would accept extrinsic evidence if a) it is impossible to determine whether coverage is implicated or b) the extrinsic evidence goes solely to a fundamental issue of coverage which does not overlap with the merits of the underlying suit. Id. at *3, 5, 6 (citing Northfield Ins. Co. v. Loving Home Care, Inc., 363 F.3d 523, 531 (5th Cir. 2004)). The Court “reserved comment” on those and other exceptions as being outside the scope of the certified question and limited its holding to the following: “the ‘policy-language exception’ to the eight-corners rule articulated by the federal district court in B. Hall Contracting—under which the eight-corners rule does not apply unless the policy contains a groundless-claims clause—is not a permissible exception under Texas law.” Id. at 6.

[1] See Ohio Casualty Insurance Co. v. Cooper Machinery Corp., 817 F. Supp 45, 48  (N.D. Tex. 1993) (McBryde, J., stating, in dicta, that the insurer is entitled to contest, in a declaratory judgment action, facts alleged in the underlying suit that relate to coverage); McLaren v. Imperial Cas. and Indem. Co., 767 F. Supp. 1364, 1374 (N.D. Tex.  1991), aff’d, 961 F.2d 213 (5th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 113 S. Ct. 1269 (1993) (McBryde, J., stating similar dicta); Blue Ridge Ins. Co. v. Hanover Ins. Co., 748 F. Supp. 470, 473 (N.D. Tex. 1991) (same).