The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit concluded that a company’s general liability insurer was obligated to provide coverage for legal fees incurred in fending off a trade secret and defamation lawsuit brought by a competitor. Lionbridge Tech., LLC v. Valley Forge Ins. Co., Case No. 21-1698 (1st Cir. Nov. 21, 2022) (Kayatta, Selya, Thompson, JJ.)
Lionbridge and TransPerfect are competitors in the language-translation industry. TransPerfect sued Lionbridge for misappropriation of trade secrets and defamation. TransPerfect alleged that Lionbridge concocted a scheme through its corporate owner to feign interest in acquiring TransPerfect and, through this scheme, improperly gained access to TransPerfect’s trade secrets, which could be used to poach TransPerfect’s customers and otherwise undermine TransPerfect’s business.
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Lionbridge informed its liability insurance carrier, Valley Forge, about the litigation. Valley Forge initially indicated that it would provide Lionbridge with coverage for legal costs associated with the litigation. Valley Forge subsequently disputed the requested coverage based on both the reasonableness of the fees incurred and the nature of the suit. Lionbridge filed suit against Valley Forge seeking full coverage from Valley Forge for its defense costs. The dispute centered on whether the fees incurred could be considered injury arising out of “[o]ral or written publication, in any manner, of material that slanders or libels a person or organization or disparages a person’s or organizations goods, products, or services,” as provided by Lionbridge’s insurance policy. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Valley Forge, finding that Valley Forge did not owe Lionbridge a duty to defend under the relevant policy provisions and exclusions. Lionbridge appealed.
The First Circuit reversed, explaining that an insurer’s duty to defend depends on whether the allegations in the underlying litigation are reasonably susceptible to an interpretation that the policy provisions apply. The focus of the inquiry is the source of the injury, not any specific theories of liability set forth in the underlying complaint. The Court explained that this inquiry required a comparison of the allegation made in the underlying litigation against the insurance policy provisions.
After analyzing the underlying complaint against the insurance policy, the First Circuit determined that the policy provisions applied because the allegations “roughly sketch[ed]” an injury arising from a defamation claim. TransPerfect’s claims were rooted in alleged reputational harm to its business, which fit within the relevant provision. The Court noted that complete overlap between the policy provisions and the claims was not required.
The First Circuit next considered whether any policy coverage exclusions applied to preclude coverage. The relevant exclusions fell into two buckets:
- Injuries caused by an insured with direct knowledge that its actions would inflict injury, or injuries arising out of an oral or written publication that the insured knows is false
- Trade secret misappropriation.
Valley Forge carried the burden of proving that either or both categories of exclusions applied. The Court concluded that the first category did not apply because Valley Forge failed to show that all allegations in the underlying complaint involved knowing and intentional conduct by Lionbridge employees. The Court also concluded that the trade secrets exclusions did not preclude coverage because applicability would require the alleged injury to “conclusively arise out of the alleged theft or misuse of trade secrets.” The Court explained that no potential liability contemplated by the underlying complaint involved theft or misuse of trade secrets.
The First Circuit reversed and remanded for further consideration as to the reasonableness of Valley Forge’s defense of the underlying litigation with TransPerfect.