California’s “Made Whole Rule”

People in queueWhere the subrogating insurer and insured both have recovery claims and are competing for a limited amount of available money from a defendant, issues arise as to who is entitled to recovery, and/or how the recovery should be divided. These issues fall within the realm of the “made whole rule”, which generally provides, that under certain circumstances (i.e. limited assets of a wrongdoing defendant, non participation of the subrogating insurer in recovery lawsuit), the insured is entitled to be “made whole” for uninsured damages from the wrongdoing defendant, before the subrogating carrier can recover from the insured (via a lien or policy provisions) or from the defendant who caused the injury.

In a recent California Supreme Court decision involving med pay reimbursement, 21st Century Insurance Company v. Superior Court (2009) 47 Cal. 4th 511, 213 P. 3d 972, an insured attempted to expand the scope of the made whole rule by including the insured’s attorney’s fees as part of her uninsured loss, thereby eliminating the recovery of the subrogating carrier.   

21st Century’s insured was injured in an automobile accident. 21st Century paid the insured $1,000 under the med pay provisions of its automobile policy. The insured hired an attorney and pursed a personal injury claim against the third party who caused the accident. The case settled for $6,000, which comprised her total damages. The insured’s attorney received a fee approximating $2,000, leaving a net recovery of $4,000. 21st Century requested reimbursement of $1,000.  The insured argued that because her damages, including attorney’s fees, were $8,000, and her recovery was only $6,000, no reimbursement to 21st Century was required. Thus, the question before the court was whether “made whole” included the attorney’s fees incurred by the insured.

After reviewing cases in other states and noting states are divided on the issue, the Court ruled in favor of 21st Century, concluding that attorney’s fees should not be included as part of the insured’s damages for purposes of determining whether the insured has been made whole in med pay reimbursement cases.  Instead, the “common fund doctrine” allows the insured to reduce the amount of reimbursement to the insurer by a pro rata share of the insured’s costs and attorney’s fees. In that manner, both the insured and insurer share in the cost of recovery in proportion to their respective recoveries. The end result of the court’s decision allowed reimbursement to the insurer of $600, representing the insurer’s $1,000 payment, less its 1/6th pro rata share of attorney’s fees and costs.

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