Insureds often request independent counsel when insurers agree to provide a defense subject to a reservation of rights, pursuant to which an insurer takes the position that certain damages may not be indemnifiable. Requests for independent counsel are often rooted in fear that a defense attorney who has a relationship with the insurer may be incentivized to defend the insured in a way that maximizes the potential for the insurer to succeed on its coverage defenses. As explained by the Illinois Supreme Court in Maryland Cas. Co. v. Peppers, 355 N.E.2d 24 (Ill. 1976), when a conflict of interest arises between an insurer and its insured, the attorney appointed by the insurer is faced with serious ethical questions and the insured is entitled to its own attorney.
Illinois courts generally follow the rule that an insured is entitled to independent counsel upon a showing of an actual conflict. In Builders Concrete Servs., LLC v. Westfield Nat’l Ins. Co., No. 19 C 7792, 2020 WL 5518474 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 14, 2020), the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois recently addressed a dispute between an insurer and its insured about independent counsel.
Westfield insured Builders Concrete Services (BCS). Focus Construction hired BCS as a subcontractor to perform concrete work on a new apartment building. BCS’ work included pouring concrete for structural columns, one of which buckled and failed. BCS sued Focus Construction for withholding payment, and Focus Construction counter-sued for breach of contract and negligence relating to BCS’ alleged faulty work that caused the column to fall. Focus Construction’s counterclaim alleged that the column failure damaged other parts of the building on which Builders did not perform work.