California Corner: California’s Bar on Coverage for Willful Acts under Insurance Code Section 533—Don’t Assume It Applies

David A. Thomas and Linda Kornfeld

Like a number of states, California prohibits insurers from indemnifying policyholders for liability based on intentional conduct that was committed with the intent to cause harm, although it does not bar a defense against such claims. California’s public policy is codified in Insurance Code Section 533, which provides: “An insurer is not liable for a loss caused by the wilful act of the insured; but he is not exonerated by the negligence of the insured, or of the insured’s agents or others.”

A significant body of law has elucidated the rules for application of Section 533. Reckless or grossly negligent conduct generally does not trigger application of the statute.[1] Nor, with very limited exceptions, does the mere fact that a policyholder intended the act that caused the harm bring the conduct within Section 533.[2] Instead, the policyholder must have intentionally performed a liability-producing act for the express purpose of causing harm or with knowledge that harm was highly probable or substantially certain to result.[3] Fraud and malicious prosecution are common examples.[4] Section 533, however, does not bar coverage for intentionally harmful acts based solely on vicarious liability.[5] Continue reading “California Corner: California’s Bar on Coverage for Willful Acts under Insurance Code Section 533—Don’t Assume It Applies”