Erie Denied: How Federal Courts Decide Insurance Coverage Cases and What to Do About It

Date: August 26, 2015

Publication: Connecticut Insurance Law Journal

John Watkins, a Partner in the Atlanta office in the Business Litigation and Corporate Practice Groups with extensive experience on insurance coverage issues who teaches Insurance Law as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, just published an article in the Connecticut Insurance Law Journal entitled "Erie Denied: How Federal Courts Decide Insurance Coverage Cases and What to Do About It." This article does not involve abstract theory, but practical real world issues faced by litigators and clients every day.

Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s long-standing decision in Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, a state’s highest court is entitled to have the last word in interpreting questions of state law, and federal courts deciding questions of state law are obligated to apply state law in the same manner as the state courts. Despite the Erie doctrine, the article demonstrates that federal courts often make incorrect “Erie guesses” regarding state law and decide cases differently than the state’s highest courts. This is particularly true in insurance coverage cases.

Fortunately, virtually all states now have legislation that allows federal courts to certify unsettled questions of state law to a state’s highest court for resolution. The U.S. Supreme Court has, on a number of occasions, enthusiastically endorsed use of such procedures. However, the federal courts apply varying standards—ranging from very liberal to extremely strict—in deciding requests to certify. The article suggests the establishment of uniform procedures designed to allow the state’s highest courts to assume their proper role under Erie and to have the last word on questions of state law. In any event, possible use of certification is a mechanism that every lawyer should have in the toolkit.

Click here to read the article.