It’s OK to Look beyond the Plaintiff’s Complaint to Determine Duty to Defend


Today, the Illinois Supreme Court made clear that in deciding whether an insurer owes a duty to defend, a trial court may look beyond the mere allegations of plaintiff’s complaint. The decision is Pekin Insurance Co. v. Wilson, ___ Ill. 2d ___ (No. 108799 May 20, 2010). A copy of it may be found on the official website of the Illinois courts at court/2010/May/108799.pdf

This Court ruled that where a plaintiff’s complaint against the insured alleges intentional acts of violence which caused harm, but the insured’s counterclaim asserts his actions were in self-defense, a duty to defend the insured may be triggered by the insured’s counterclaim’s allegations of self-defense in response to the underlying complaint. Here, the policy contained an exclusion for intentional acts, but also a self-defense exception to that exclusion. The Supreme Court agrees with the decisions of American Economy Insurance Co. v. Holabird & Root, 382 Ill. App. 3d 1017 (2008) and Fidelity & Casualty Co. of New York v. Envirodyne Engineers, Inc., 122 Ill. App. 3d 301, 304-05 (1983) that a circuit court may, under certain circumstances, look beyond the underlying complaint in order to determine an insurer’s duty to defend. Holabird and Envirodyne were summary judgment cases, but the Court applied the analysis here to a motion to dismiss on the pleadings.

The decision settles some controversy which existed because of “loose” language used by prior court decisions which suggested a court must look to the plaintiff’s complaint to determine the duty to defend. The Supreme Court made clear today, however, that those other decisions did not squarely address the question of whether the only thing a trial court may look to in determining the scope of the duty to defend is the plaintiff’s complaint.

Good decision.


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