Midwest Insurers Have Duty to Defend in Junk Fax Class-Action Suits

The Illinois Supreme Court handed a victory to plaintiffs throughout Illinois with its 2006 ruling in an insurance dispute over whether insurers must cover the costs of a junk fax class action lawsuit for an insured covered for an “advertising injury.” In Valley Forge Insurance Co. v. Swiderski Electronics, Inc., 2006 Ill. LEXIS 1655, the state Supreme Court ruled that business insurers have a duty to defend “junk fax” class action lawsuits.

The underlying dispute in the Illinois Supreme Court case started when private investigator Ernie Rizzo filed a proposed class action lawsuit against Swiderski Electronics for sending him “junk faxes.” Unsolicited advertisements sent via fax violate both the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. Swiderski had an insurance policy from Valley Forge Insurance Company, which insured Swiderski against a personal or advertising injury that arises out of “Oral or written publication, in any manner, of material that violates a person’s right of privacy[.]” The insurer claimed that because the faxes had not revealed Rizzo’s own personal information, they did not invade his privacy and thus were not covered. They also claimed that sending information via fax does not constitute publication.

The insurer asked a trial court for a declaratory judgment stating it was not obligated to cover Swiderski; all parties filed cross-motions seeking summary judgment. The trial court ruled in favor of Swiderski, as did the appellate court and, eventually, the Illinois Supreme Court. That court rejected Valley Forge’s arguments, rejecting the claim that faxing is not “publication,” using the plain meaning of the word. It also ruled that privacy under the federal TCPA and caselaw includes the right to be left alone:

The receipt of an unsolicited fax advertisement implicates a person’s right of privacy insofar as it violates a person’s seclusion, and such a violation is one of the injuries that a TCPA faxad claim is intended to vindicate.

That contradicts the a 2004 decision by the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in American States Insurance Co. v. Capital Associates of Jackson County Inc., 392 F.3d 939, which found no duty to defend under very similar circumstances. The Seventh Circuit’s earlier ruling said privacy rights may include the right to seclusion in some cases, but “advertising injury” clauses do not, so insurers have no duty to defend in junk fax cases. Because the Seventh is bound by Illinois Supreme Court precedent in cases involving Illinois law, the more recent ruling overturns American States, handing a victory to plaintiffs and businesses who are plagued by unwanted junk faxes.

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