The Flint, Mich., water crisis returned to the news recently as criminal charges were brought against additional government employees resulting from the crisis. Meanwhile, a federal court in Pennsylvania recently issued a ruling in an insurance case that, like Flint, related to alleged contamination in drinking water stemming from corroded pipes. The decision rejects two insurers’ attempts to avoid coverage and serves as a good reminder of some fundamental insurance law principles—the duty to defend is broad, ambiguous policy language usually is construed against the insurer, and policies should be interpreted in favor of their purpose to provide coverage. It is also a reminder that the pollution exclusion is not nearly as all-encompassing as insurers like to think it is.
After tearing through the Caribbean, Hurricane Matthew’s path brought it north to the southeastern coast of the United States, bringing evacuations, business closures and damages to the region. In the storm’s aftermath, colleagues Tamara Bruno, Colin Kemp, Peter Gillon, Vince Morgan and Joe Jean discuss important steps to take to maximize insurance recovery following such an event.
As we edge further into the summer months, many contractors see an increase in work volume with longer days and universally better weather. That said, Mother Nature is not always predictable, and an unexpected storm can quickly lead to a flash flood, or other natural disaster that might result in what insurers may classify as a pollution event. Even something seemingly as innocuous as water run-off from a job site following a summer shower has the potential to result in a third-party claim against a contractor for damage. Thus, it is imperative that contractors have the right pollution coverage in place to remain secure and profitable.
Ever since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided Zeig v. Mass. Bonding & Insurance Co. in 1928, it has been well-settled that a policyholder can compromise a disputed claim with its insurer for less than the full limits of the policy without putting its rights to excess coverage at risk. In a seminal opinion by Judge Augustus Hand, the Zeig court said, “We can see no reason for a construction so burdensome to the insured,” to require collection of the full amount of primary polices in order to exhaust them. The Zeig court emphasized that a compromise payment by the primary insurer discharges the limits of the primary coverage, while the excess insurer is unharmed, since it must pay only the amount exceeding the attachment point of its policy.
Recently, we wrote about the breadth of the “duty to defend,” and its importance to policyholders. As if on cue, late last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed in Ash Grove Cement Company v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company that, under Oregon law, an insurer’s duty to defend begins with an information request from the Environmental Protection Agency, and continues for the duration of the regulatory process. The particular information request at issue in Ash Grove Cement is known as a “104(e) letter,” which is issued by the EPA under section 104(e) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA). As companies that have owned or operated a contaminated site know from experience, a 104(e) letter or a similar request under state environmental law typically is the first step in a regulatory enforcement process under which they face strict and retroactive liability for the costs of investigating and cleaning up the site. The ruling in Ash Grove Cement means that defense cost coverage begins at this critical juncture and continues until site investigation and cleanup is completed.
Over time, New York’s courts have erected multiple barriers to policyholders seeking to recover insurance for long-tail, progressive injury claims—such as environmental or asbestos liabilities—that can implicate multiple policies over multiple policy terms. Now, in a New York minute, just weeks after hearing oral argument, the Empire State’s highest court leveled the playing field by endorsing the “all sums” and “vertical exhaustion” approach to allocation advocated by a policyholder, at least as to policies containing “non-cumulation” and “prior insurance” provisions.
In In re Viking Pump, Inc., New York’s Court of Appeals did not overrule its 2002 decision in Consolidated Edison Co. of New York v. Allstate Ins. Co., which had applied pro rata allocation where the non-cumulation clause argument was not raised, but the court made clear that pro rata allocation is not the default rule in New York. Rather, the specific wording of the triggered policies will control, and can require allocation on an all-sums basis. This is a huge win for policyholders with New York liabilities and a further endorsement, by a prestigious court, of the “all sums” approach to allocation.
New York’s Martin Act has a lot of Wall Street and energy industry companies concerned about potential investigations into their respective stances on climate change. In the client alert “When Attorneys General Attack,” colleagues Sheila Harvey, Joseph Jean, Carolina Fornos and Benjamin Tievsky examine the act and discuss strategies for managing and obtaining insurance coverage if such investigations do occur.
North Texas never felt an earthquake until 2008. Since then, well over one hundred have been recorded—including a whopping five earthquakes confirmed in a single day in April 2015. Oklahoma had 585 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater in 2014, which rose to 907 in 2015. Areas spread across the central and eastern United States, from Colorado to Ohio, are experiencing increased seismic activity and the increased risk of earthquake-related property damage that comes along with it.
Acquiring adequate insurance coverage against environmental risks, in particular the spill or release of pollutants or contaminants in day-to-day operations, is important to many construction businesses confronting the requirements of environmental regulation. For example, EPA’s hazardous waste rules require permittees (at both the state and federal level) to demonstrate financial responsibility for the operations of these facilities, including site closure and post-closure care, and coverage for sudden and accidental discharges. This requirement can be satisfied by proof of acceptable insurance coverage. In addition, having such insurance often assists companies facing the challenge of an extensive and prolonged Superfund cleanup. Many courts have ruled that the receipt of a Superfund Notice Letter from EPA triggers the responsibility of the insurer to provide the coverage in the policy. Continue reading →
The universe of insurers still available to pay long-tail liability claims (e.g., asbestos, pollution, and other health hazards) is getting smaller every year. Significant domestic insurers like The Home, Midland and Mission declared bankruptcy years ago. Significant London Market companies continue to fade away, depriving policyholders with historic London Market policies of the opportunity to fully collect upon claims made and satisfied under those policies. Continue reading →