What Enron Can Teach Us About D&O Coverage

The Enron saga is, itself, utterly fascinating. If you haven’t had the chance there are several good documentaries about it, one being “Enron: The Smartest Men in the Room”. Unfortunately I don’t believe it’s available on Netflix anymore, but alternate streaming services still have it (here’s an Amazon link). I’m sure there’s more in-depth and technical sources out there but as a relatively “soft” documentary it’s a great film with which to wind down a day. FindLaw.com also has an interesting set of articles if you’re looking for more to peruse.

While perhaps not the most interesting of all the specific topics dealing with Enron, there are some curious lessons in the way insurance played out – especially D&O. If you’re just looking for the take-home point it’s this: even if a defendant pleads guilty that is not considered a “final adjudication” of guilt (I know!), at least in the Enron case. This was surprising to me, as well as to Enron’s D&O insurers I suppose, whom I understand had a total of about $350M in limits put up. Here is an expert explaining the circumstance from an IRMI Whitepaper (I have since lost the link but I *believe* the below is verbatim):

Former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow pleaded guilty in criminal proceedings associated with Enron’s bankruptcy. Yet since the Enron D&O policy forms were written on a “final adjudication” basis, the insurer was obligated to continue defending Mr. Fastow against civil lawsuits because his conduct still had not been subject to “final adjudication.” Although Mr. Fastow had already pleaded guilty to criminal charges, he had not yet been sentenced and until that time could still change his plea. But by continuing to defend Mr. Fastow, other far less culpable directors and officers—including retired directors—had their remaining policy limits depleted. 

My notes say the IRMI article called the “Final Adjudication” language a “minefield”, but I wouldn’t go that far (seriously IRMI?).  However, it is one of the most preferential provisions an insured can secure in a D&O policy – and be careful out there because while it is becoming *more* common it should certainly not be considered the default. While such language may provide for sub-optimal circumstances – such as a “guilty” director getting defense coverage they “shouldn’t” have – the benefit of preserving coverage for alleged fraudulent acts, which are ultimately baseless, far outweighs such consequences. 

But there’s a second consideration to all of this as well.  What if instead of “guilty”, Andrew Fastow had pleaded no contest?  Is a plea of nolo contendere a “Final Adjudication”?  The short answer is… “No!”  But do bear in mind that jurisdictions vary. This “Policyholder Advisor Alert” from the law firm Anderson Kill (NY) does a great job of explaining how the variations on the “Final Adjudication” clause in policy can play out, both theoretically and practically:

The most advantageous conduct exclusions are triggered only by a final and non-appealable adjudication against the policyholder. Conversely, insurance companies may interpret references to “determinations in fact,” “adverse admissions,” or other potentially non-final determinations as giving them license to adopt an earlier trigger. Triggers like “written admission by the Insured” or “plea of nolo contendere or no contest regarding such conduct” make it more likely that the insurance company will apply the exclusion. An insurance company might attempt to latch onto a statement by the policyholder’s representative at deposition or a preliminary finding of fact by the court. Even an exclusion that lacks only the “non-appealable” component could be fodder for an insurance company to argue against coverage, even if an incorrect result is overturned on appeal.


Final, non-appealable adjudication language ensures the policyholder gets its full “day” in court and pushes the coverage decision further into the future, increasing the likelihood of a settlement that avoids the conduct exclusion altogether.

You will note that they specifically mention some provisions which state “an admission by the insured” or similar – this is because carriers are inserting these into “Final Adjudication” clauses with regularity, though not always. Again, it’s important to know how your particular provisions work.

Another topic to discuss, which the above Anderson Kill article touches on, is severability. This is the portion of your policy, usually hidden in the “warranty” and “state conditions” and similar pages that people tend not to read. In short, severability determines whether one insured’s actions impute/affect another insured’s coverage. For example if one director is found guilty of fraud what happens to the coverage for the other directors? What happens to the coverage for the corporation? What happens if the CEO knowingly falsified and signed the coverage application – will that exclude coverage for other individuals?

This, again, is something that is going to be unique to each carrier. However, I am happy to say that many offer decently advantageous “severability” clauses either in their base form or via endorsement. When you’re looking at these you want to pay attention to two key areas:

1. What happens if one director is found guilty – is coverage preserved for “innocent” insureds?

In this case I would say most policies I’ve personally dealt with do preserve coverage. Some very small D&O policies, or add-ons you might get with other coverage, very well may not be as generous but my experience shows this isn’t a contentious ask.

2. What happens if the application is falsified?

This scenario is typically more complex as, while many carriers will provide details in this situation, they vary widely in to whom the falsification is “imputed” to. The more generous provisions will state something along the lines of “if an application is falsified by [C-Level Executives/Directors] it’s imputed to the corporation but not to other directors and officers”. In such a situation, a CEO falsifying an application would remove coverage for the corporate entity, but not for other executives. This is also why D&O carriers often insist that applications be signed by particular individuals.

D&O policies are some of the most complex beasts out there, and such complexity isn’t often known until the crisis arrives. So if you have the time, I would highly suggest you look at not only Enron data (I picked that simply because of its fame and the info is plentiful), but anything else you can get your hands on. These types of policies, being “relatively” new to the scene and non-standard are also going to be highly sensitive to jurisdictional changes (jurisdiction itself being a concern when you have a policy for a national or international client!).

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