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Insurers’ Obligations to Insured Sued for Defamation

August 3, 2022 By Nancy J. Goodiel

The John C. Depp, II v. Amber Laura Heard trial, that took place in Fairfax County this past spring, revolved around claims of defamation by both parties but some are not aware that there was a surprising insurance component to the litigation. Heard was insured during the relevant period of time by The New York Marine and General Insurance Company (“New York Marine”) for $1 million dollars for different types of wrongful conduct including defamation. Although Heard’s Carrier issued a reservation of rights, they provided Heard with counsel and a defense. After a sensational six-week trial, the jury returned a verdict against Ms. Heard.

New York Marine has now filed suit against Amber Heard in U.S. District Court seeking declaratory relief from the contract of insurance. Specifically, the Carrier is seeking that they be permitted to deny coverage of Heard’s legal defense fees and expenses for the multimillion dollar trial and any subsequent appeals. As part of their case against Heard, New York Marine alleges that there was a change in her defense team from the one initially agreed upon. Further, New York Marine has alleged that the verdict in the underlying case establishes that Heard‘s liability was caused by her own willful and malicious actions.

California law, like most states, does not require an insurance carrier to provide coverage for willful acts of the insured. The Reservation of Rights from New York Marine, at the outset of the litigation, advised Heard that it would provide a legal defense but that it would not indemnify her pursuant to California law.

Travelers Commercial Insurance was Heard’s homeowners’ insurance carrier during the time period relevant to the litigation and also provided Heard with coverage. Since the declaratory action was filed by New York Marine, Travelers filed suit against New York Marine seeking an award of half of Heard’s defense costs for the six-week trial. New York Marine has, in turn, filed a counterclaim in response to Travelers. As such, much to our delight, or dismay, the Depp v Heard litigation appears to be ongoing for the time being.