Harry Lee of Steptoe & Johnson. June 12, 2015. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL.

Once again, Steptoe & Johnson’s formidable insurance litigation operation has grabbed the National Law Journal’s award of excellence in Washington, D.C., following up on last year’s win with another slate of impressive victories for its roster of major insurers.

A case in point is the October ruling by a San Francisco Superior Court judge that Steptoe client National Union Insurance Co. must be reimbursed some $10 million it had shelled out to indemnify and defend multiple asbestos cases, along with prejudgment interest going back to 2012.

Partner Harry Lee, who heads the firm’s insurance and reinsurance group and led the California litigation, says the litigation pitted his client—which had only written coverage for a five-month period—against two other carriers who claimed their two-year and five-year policies had been exhausted by the litigation.

“Our client had essentially been paying the entire freight [in the underlying litigation] because the other insurers had declared their policies exhausted and just walked away,” said Lee, who handled the case with firm colleagues Jon Neumann and Lisa Petrovsky.

In a final ruling, “the court said ‘no,’ we hadn’t taken on a dramatically different share of risk,” he said.

The ruling means that National Union will only be liable for a fraction of the costs, depending on claimants’ exposure dates.

The firm is also basking in a Fourth Circuit Court Appeals ruling in March of last year upholding a Maryland court’s ruling in another asbestos case regarding an insurer’s duties under a policy’s “completed operations hazard” clause applying to liability for a company’s products or operations once they’ve been completed.

If claims are deemed to fall outside of that definition, damages can be virtually unlimited because there is no cap, Lee said.

“The difference can mean multi-millions of dollars as to what the injury was,” Lee said. “We argued that these were post-operations injuries, that we had paid our $30 million cap and we were done,” he said. “The court agreed.”

Lee says the firm’s insurance group numbers fluctuate, with usually between 30 to 50 lawyers working insurance cases, “and up to 80 sometimes.”

“We have insurance groups all over the country and all over the world,” he said. “We’re mostly known for significant litigation coverage; we don’t give much advice, and we don’t do many deals.”

Lee says his team usually handles cases involving large claims by corporate policy holders, and is often the lead counsel for cases involving multiple carriers.

“Insurer v. insurer cases are actually a rarity for us; it’s not often we find ourselves needing to sue other carriers,” he said. “We try to be very careful and respectful; as a lawyer, you’re either on one side or the other.

Firm Facts:

Firm Name: Steptoe & Johnson Founded: Washington, D.C. Total number of attorneys: 467 Litigators as percentage of firm: 52.46% Litigators as percentage in D.C.: 47.27% Litigation partners firm wide: 98 Litigation associates firm wide: 102 D.C. litigation partners: 47 D.C. litigation associates: 57

Key to Success:

“We are ‘all in.’ This is not a job, it’s a profession, and our duties to our clients go beyond just doing a job. Winning is important, but doing so properly and ethically is just as important. Fully understand the facts and the law in the case and know more than anyone else in the room, including the judge. Know what your client needs. Our clients have jobs, kids and other things to do. It’s very important to understand what they need us to do.” — Harry Lee

Greg Land covers topics including verdicts and settlements and insurance-related litigation for the Daily Report in Atlanta.