Robbins v. Mason County Title Ins. Co. (Majority and Dissent)Annotate this Case
In 1854, the Washington Territory and nine Native American tribes, including the Squaxin Island Tribe (the Tribe), entered into the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek (the Treaty), under which the Tribe relinquished their rights to land but retained “the right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations . . . , in common with all citizens of the Territory.” The District Court for the Western District of Washington has interpreted “fish” under the Treaty to include shellfish. In 1978, Leslie and Harlene Robbins (Robbins) purchased property in Mason County, Washington that included tidelands with manila clam beds. In connection with the purchase of the property, Robbins obtained a standard policy of title insurance from Mason County Title Insurance Company (MCTI) which provided MCTI would insure Robbins “against loss or damage sustained by reason of: . . . [a]ny defect in, or lien or encumbrance on, said title existing at the date hereof.” For years Robbins had contracted with commercial shellfish harvesters to enter Robbins’s property to harvest shellfish from the tidelands. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court's review was whether MCTI had a duty to defend Robbins when the Tribe announced it planned to assert its treaty right to harvest shellfish from the property. The Court affirmed the Court of Appeals and remanded to the superior court for further proceedings. The Supreme Court held that because the insurance policy conceivably covered the treaty right and no exceptions to coverage applied, MCTI owed the property owners a duty to defend and, in failing to do so, breached the duty. Because this breach was unreasonable given the uncertainty in the law, MCTI acted in bad faith. Further, because the property owners did not seek summary judgment on MCTI’s affirmative defenses, the Supreme Court remanded to the superior court for consideration of the defenses.