Michael Wojciak brought an action in Hennepin County District Court against Northern Package Corporation seeking damages for wrongful discharge, alleged to have been a retaliation for his making a
Upon cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court granted Northern's motion, holding that each insurer's policy furnished coverage of Wojciak's claim and required defense of the action by the insurer, that Northern was entitled to be reimbursed for reasonable attorney fees expended in defense of the action, and that Northern was entitled to attorney fees of $4,000 in the third-party action. Both insurers have appealed. We affirm the judgment against National, the workers' compensation insurer, and reverse it against American, having concluded that National's policy required it to defend the Wojciak action and to pay any recovery made by him, that American's policy did not so require, and that the coverage afforded by National is not violative of public policy because of the unique character of the statute authorizing the employee's action and because of the relationship existing between a workers' compensation insurer and its insured.
1. Insurance Coverage and Duty of Defense.
As stated, the Wojciak action was premised upon Minn.Stat. § 176.82 (1980), which provides:
National's denial that its policy extended coverage for any recovery Wojciak might make against Northern requires review of its policy. The pertinent provisions of the policy include the following:
Northern's position is that the policy affords coverage of the Wojciak claim and required National to provide a defense in that action because the damages the employee might recover therein are "other benefits required of the insured by the workmen's compensation law" within the meaning of Coverage A and because National agreed to provide defense for such an action in Paragraph II(a), quoted above. National argues that the compensatory and punitive damages sought by Wojciak are not "compensation and other benefits required of the insured by the workmen's compensation law." It relies in part on the definition of compensation in Minn.Stat. § 176.011, subd. 8 (1980):
National insists that "other benefits" is exactly the same as "compensation" in its policy definition. It relies on St. Martin v. KLA Enterprises, Inc., 269 N.W.2d 59 (Minn.1978), in which this court stated that compensation and benefits are terms used synonymously in the Workers' Compensation Act. In that case we held that the Special Compensation Fund was required to pay an additional award pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 176.225 (1980) for the employer's refusal to pay compensation and rejected the special fund's argument that the additional compensation was not a "benefit" within the meaning of Minn.Stat. § 176.183, subd. 1 (1980), for which the special fund was liable. We said:
269 N.W.2d at 61.
In reliance on this decision, National claims that "other benefits" in its policy means in effect "compensation"; it then argues that any recovery the employee obtains from an action brought under Minn. Stat. § 176.82 (1980) cannot be "compensation and other benefits" within the meaning
We have concluded, however, that "compensation" and "benefits," although used as synonyms in the Workers' Compensation Act, were not so used in the policy. Had they been, there would have been no need for the reference in Coverage A to "other benefits." And, if "compensation" and "benefits" meant exactly the same thing, the word "other" would have no function. Instead, assuming that compensation and benefits are synonymous when they relate to wage loss, medical treatment, vocational rehabilitation, and awards under Minn.Stat. § 176.225 (1980), and resolving reasonable doubt as to the meaning of the policy language in favor of the insured, we construe the policy to encompass such benefits in the word "compensation" and to describe other rights granted an employee by the Workers' Compensation Act, including the right to recover damages under Minn.Stat. § 176.82 (1980), in the phrase "other benefits required of the insurer by the workmen's compensation law." Under this construction the policy coverage extends to any liability imposed on Northern as a consequence of the Wojciak action.
Moreover, the policy requires Northern to defend the Wojciak action since paragraph II(a) provides broadly that the duty to defend extends to "any proceeding against the insured seeking such benefits," and the Wojciak action clearly is such a proceeding.
Having determined that National's workers' compensation and employers' liability policy provided coverage and the duty to defend the Wojciak action, and, as discussed hereinafter, that National cannot avoid these obligations on public policy grounds, we need not engage in a similar analysis of the general liability policy furnished Northern by American because, whether or not coverage might otherwise exist, the policy contains an exclusion expressly stating that it does not apply:
Northern's claim that the exclusion was removed from the policy by a subsequent endorsement is entirely without merit. By reason of the unambiguous character of the exclusion, we hold that American's policy neither furnished coverage nor required American to defend the Wojciak action on Northern's behalf.
2. National's Coverage of Statutory Punitive Damages is not Violative of Public Policy.
National urges that we hold that public policy prohibits an employer from insuring against a judgment for "punitive damages not to exceed three times the amount of any compensation benefit to which the employee is entitled," authorized by Minn.Stat. § 176.82 (1980). The issue raised is troublesome in light of the purposes for which punitive damages traditionally have been permitted, to punish a wrongdoer and to deter others from like conduct. Several jurisdictions have held that insurance against punitive damages is violative of public policy. The leading case taking that position is Northwestern Nat. Cas. Co. v. McNulty, 307 F.2d 432 (5th Cir.
307 F.2d at 440-41. Several courts have agreed with this view. E. g., American Surety Co. of N.Y. v. Gold, 375 F.2d 523 (10th Cir. 1966); Crull v. Gleb, 382 S.W.2d 17 (Mo.App.1964); American Ins. Co. v. Saulnier, 242 F.Supp. 257 (D.Conn.1965); Nicholson v. American Fire & Cas. Ins. Co., 177 So.2d 52 (Fla.App.1965); and LoRocco v. N.J. Mfrs. Indem. Ins. Co., 82 N.J.Super. 323, 197 A.2d 591 (App.Div.1964).
Other courts have disagreed, suggesting that the extent to which the imposition of punitive damages deters wanton, outrageous or malicious conduct is speculative and advancing as grounds for imposing liability on the insurer the insured's reasonable expectation of coverage and the state's public policy favoring complete insurance coverage. See, State v. Glens Falls Ins. Co., 137 Vt. 313, 404 A.2d 101 (1979); Price v. Hartford Acc. & Indem. Co., 108 Ariz. 485, 502 P.2d 522 (1972); Dairyland County Mut. Ins. Co. v. Wallgren, 477 S.W.2d 341 (Tex. Civ.App.1972); Lazenby v. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co., 214 Tenn. 639, 383 S.W.2d 1 (1964).
In spite of the lack of certainty concerning the deterrent effect of punitive damages, we are satisfied that in most instances public policy should prohibit a person from insuring himself against misconduct of a character serious enough to warrant punitive damages. In this case, however, we have concluded that the rule should not be applied. We base our decision in part on the fact that Minn.Stat. § 176.82 (1980), although styling the multiple damages authorized therein as "punitive damages," was enacted not only to punish employers guilty of retaliatory discharges and to deter such conduct by others, but also to afford redress to employees who lose their employment as the consequence of retaliatory dismissal. Thus, the statute reflects as much a concern for employees' welfare as it does a desire to punish employers and deter them from the forbidden conduct. We recognize also that there are differences between a statutory award of multiple damages, which represents a fixed amount and does not necessarily reflect a judgment concerning the culpability of the employer's conduct, and an award of punitive damages at common law, which is assessed by the jury and thus reflects the community's condemnation of a defendant's conduct when it is viewed as wanton, malicious, or outrageous. Cf. Cieslewicz v. Mutual Serv. Cas. Ins. Co., 84 Wis.2d 91, 267 N.W.2d 595 (1978). We recognize also that a compensation insurer, by reason of its relationship to the employer-insured, can exert at least some influence on the latter to refrain from conduct giving
Appellants have urged also that the trial court's award of $4,000 in attorney fees is excessive. Although the award was clearly liberal, we are unable to say that it was an abuse of discretion.
The judgment is affirmed as to National Surety Corporation and reversed as to American Insurance Company.