A recent caller to the Free Legal Service Program that I operate for members of the Independent Insurance Agents of Georgia asked a question I had heard several times before with slight variations. The essence of the question is whether an insurance agent can disclose information about a customer’s insurance policy to a third party, in the absence of the customer’s authorization to do so. This latest call involved an attorney who was Of Counsel to a law firm and had a serious illness that had left him unable to communicate. This attorney’s malpractice policy named another attorney as his “back up attorney” in the event of his death or incapacity. The “back up attorney” had requested information about the policy and a copy of the bill for its renewal premium, the payment of which was due in the near future. The caller wanted to know if the requested information and bill could be provided to the “back up attorney.”
As with all things associated with an insurance policy, the first place to look for an answer to the caller’s question in that particular situation and more generally is the language of the policy itself. In the above situation, the policy should have contained language that addressed what information could and could not be given to the back up attorney, since it contemplated the customer’s death or incapacity. In other situations, it is likely the policy itself will not say anything about this subject.
If the policy is of no help, the next place to look is the applicable law. In Georgia, there is no statute or regulation that directly addresses whether an insurance agent can disclose information about a customer’s insurance policy to a third person. Both Georgia and federal law in this area are concerned with the disclosure to third persons of individually identifiable information about the customer, not about any insurance policy they may have. The disclosure of such information to third parties by an insurance agent or company is prohibited, subject to specified exceptions, most of which involve other participants in the insurance industry or the courts, law enforcement, or other government agencies.
However, there a couple of exceptions that apply to situations that an agent or agency is likely to encounter. Georgia law permits the disclosure of individually identifiable information about a customer to a “certificate holder” to the extent it relates to “the status of an insurance transaction.” Disclosure of such information can also be made to a lienholder, mortgagee, assignee, lessor, or other person who has an interest in a policy of insurance as shown in the agent’s or agency’s records to the extent necessary to enable such person to protect their interest in the policy. If individually identifiable information about a customer can be disclosed in these two situations, there should not be a problem with disclosing information about the customer’s insurance policy.
As far as other situations are concerned, a quick search of the opinions of the Georgia appellate courts did not reveal any cases that address the disclosure of information about an insurance policy to a third person. Whether such disclosure would constitute an invasion of the privacy of the customer appears to be an open question under Georgia law and would most likely depend on the particular factual circumstances surrounding the disclosure. However, as a practical matter, most customers don’t expect their agent or agency to disclose information about their policies to anyone who asks for it without their consent. It would not be good for business for an agent or agency to become known as one who discloses information about their customers’ policies to whoever may ask for it. That is the most important reason not to do so.