Risk Management

The Cooperation Clause

By Kimberly Wittchow, JD

OMIC Staff Attorney

Digest, Winter 2005

In order to properly investigate and defend a medical malpractice claim, the professional liability company and the insured must cooperate. The participation of the insured, who is the subject of the lawsuit and holds first-hand information about the incident, is crucial to his or her own defense. Without such cooperation and assistance, the insurer is severely handicapped and may even be precluded from advancing any defense.

While the litigation process nearly always progresses successfully, there are times when some insureds thwart the resolution of their claims by failing to cooperate. Insureds may believe they have done nothing wrong and therefore avoid any work to counter the plaintiffs’ allegations. Or, afraid of the consequences, they may keep vital information away from their defense attorney until late into the case development. They might not understand the importance of their presence at litigation proceedings (such as depositions, mediations, or arbitrations) and worry about taking time away from their practice. Some attempt to handle matters “on their own” by discussing the case with plaintiffs’ attorneys against the advice of defense counsel or making payments without their insurers’ consent. Others may not want to tarnish their record and thus refuse to participate in settlement talks even when there is strong evidence that the standard of care was breached.

Investigation and Defense

That is why many professional liability policies contain Cooperation Clauses that require insureds to assist in the defense of claims made against them. OMIC’s policy has such a clause and, broken down, it requires the insured’s assistance on three levels. First and foremost, the policy requires that insureds assist in resolving the claim brought by the patient by helping with the insurer’s investigation and defense of the claim at trial or through settlement, as appropriate. This includes producing medical records, spending time with defense counsel, coordinating the appearance of staff at depositions or at trial, and attending court proceedings.

Coordination of Payment

The second situation is related to the coordination of payment among various legally responsible parties or insurers. The insured is required to cooperate in enforcing a right of contribution (where the loss will be shared) or indemnity (where another party is responsible for the entire loss) against someone else liable for the claim. For example, an insured may give notice under his or her OMIC professional liability policy for an office premises claim that might also be covered under the insured’s business owners or general liability policy. In this case, OMIC would ask the insured to help coordinate the defense and resolution of this claim with the other insurer.

Unauthorized Payments

Finally, the insured is prohibited from making payments, incurring other expenses, or assuming any obligations except at the insured’s own cost and with OMIC’s permission. OMIC wants to participate in its insured’s defense and work with the insured to come to the best resolution possible for the insured and the injured party. If the insured does not allow OMIC to participate, OMIC cannot be responsible for expenses the insured incurs. One example of this situation is where an insured decides, without the advice of defense counsel, to hire a private detective to track a malingering patient. This can be problematic for the defense because the defendant may be compelled to provide the plaintiff with this information. If nothing was revealed through the investigation, this could undermine the insured’s defense. Another example is when an insured, believing it is in everyone’s best interest, makes an out-of-pocket payment to the patient after a lawsuit has been filed. Again, if the case proceeds, this early payment to the patient may jeopardize its defense.

Even with the notice of required cooperation provided in the policy, some insureds still may not comply. The risk for these insureds is that they may be prevented from recovering under their insurance policies for the particular claim or they may lose their coverage altogether.

Before the situation reaches this level, however, the OMIC Claims staff would work diligently to educate the insured regarding the importance of his or her participation and cooperation in the defense of the claim and discuss what specific action is needed from the insured to bring him or her into compliance.

OMIC understands the issues that may impede a physician’s cooperation with his or her insurer and has several ways to assist its insureds with the upset of a lawsuit. First, OMIC provides access to one-on-one personal counseling (under the direction of the defense counsel in order to preserve attorney-client privilege) to help insureds deal with the emotional impact of litigation. OMIC also offers litigation and deposition handbooks to help insureds better understand the process. Finally, OMIC’s policy pays insureds for reasonable expenses incurred at OMIC’s request in the investigation or defense of a claim and for earnings lost as a result of attendance at court hearings or trials (see policy provisions for details).

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