Certificates of Insurance - A Prudent Means to Avoid Costly Claims

More and more companies are hiring independent contractors to handle not only administrative matters, such as benefits and human resources, but also sales and distribution. With this delegation of authority to third-party suppliers comes less direct control over these operations, and greater becomes the need for clients to demand that vendors provide them with timely Certificates of Insurance (COI).

The COI proves that the insured (the third party) has purchased the insurance coverages as required by the outsourcing client. But, the COI also states that the holder of the certificate has no legal right to be covered by the insurance described in the COI, nor does it amend, extend or alter the represented coverage. The COI only shows that the outside contractor has the insurance coverage as explained on the certificate. This protects the business that has contracted with the third party against liability for negligence caused by the independent contractor up to the limits of the policy.

It is the responsibility of the independent contractor to provide the COI to the client that has hired the firm. Usually a COI is prepared by an agent/broker with a copy sent to the insurance company and the client for whom the third party has contracted to perform certain functions.

The COI contains the name of the insured, the name of the insurance companies issuing the policies as stated on the COI, what specific coverages are contained in the insurance policies issued to the insured, and various descriptions of normal policy terms, exclusions and conditions.

Most often COIs are obtained for commercial general liability to provide protection from liability arising out of the insured's premises or operations, products and completed operations. Usually, a general form will provide broad, standardized coverage terms. In cases, where the coverage is more complex and of a higher risk, manuscript forms of a COI can be written specifically by or for an insurance company. These manuscript COIs should be reviewed carefully for the scope of coverage being provided.

There are two types of general liability forms -- claims-made and occurrence. The trigger that compels the policy to respond is the main difference between the two forms. In the occurrence policy, occurrences are covered that take place during the policy period, no matter when a claim is reported. A claims-made policy requires that the occurrence take place during the policy period and the claim be reported during the policy period. Most COIs use the occurrence form for all independent contractors as claims-made policies limit coverage.

But simply having a COI in hand does not always mean that the independent contractor has the insurance coverage. A prudent practice is to have a system to audit, review and correct the certificates to reflect the provisions in the contracts. Some clients establish an auditing program in house, while others have the insurance agent or broker manage the program as part of their fee arrangement. This cost depends greatly on the workload.

The consequences of not monitoring COIs of a third party can be costly for the firm that hired the contractor. Consider this sobering example. A business hired an independent contractor to provide distribution service for the company. An employee of the vendor had a serious car accident, and soon afterwards, the contractor ceased business. When the employee began submitting workers' compensation claims, there was no coverage -- the contractor had never maintained that insurance. Unfortunately, the company had not insisted on a COI from the independent contractor to verify this coverage. Casting about for payment of the claim, the court ruled that the vendor's employee was a statutory employee of the company that hired the contractor. The workers' compensation claims have totaled more than $100,000 with more to come.

This is just one of many chilling cases of companies that have been caught with unexpected losses that came from not requiring proper COIs from independent contractors and auditing them to make sure they remain current and reflect the actual coverages held by the insured.




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