Mercury Insurance Co. v. LaraAnnotate this Case
Defendant-appellant Ricardo Lara, the California Insurance Commissioner, filed a notice of noncompliance against plaintiffs-respondents Mercury Insurance Company, Mercury Casualty Company, and California Automobile Insurance Company (collectively Mercury) alleging Mercury charged rates not approved by the California Department of Insurance (CDI) and that the rates were unfairly discriminatory in violation of Insurance Code sections 1861.01 (c) and 1861.05 (b). The allegedly unapproved rates were in the form of broker fees charged by Mercury agents, which should have been disclosed as premium. After prevailing at an administrative hearing, the Commissioner imposed civil penalties against Mercury totaling $27,593,550 for almost 184,000 unlawful acts. Mercury filed a petition for writ of mandate, which the court granted, reversing the Commissioner’s decision. The court found the “broker fees” were not premium because they were charged for separate services. The court also rejected the Commissioner’s interpretation of the term premium under the Insurance Code and regulations. In addition, the court ruled Mercury did not have proper notice it was subject to penalties, in violation of due process, and the action was barred by laches because CDI had unduly delayed in bringing the action. Commissioner and intervener-appellant, Consumer Watchdog (CWD), appealed on several grounds, among them: (1) the trial court did not use the proper standard of review; (2) failed to give the Commissioner’s findings a strong presumption of correctness and failed to put the burden of proof on Mercury to show the findings were against the weight of the evidence; (3) the trial court’s finding the fees were charged for separate services was precluded by collateral estoppel; (4) Mercury received proper notice of the potential imposition of a penalty; and (5) laches did not bar the action. The Court of Appeal agreed with Commissioner and CWD the writ was issued in error and reversed the judgment.