We previously wrote about the growing number of lawsuits by insureds seeking business interruption insurance coverage for business losses in response to the novel coronavirus (here and here), and the constraints that state and federal governments should face were they to compel such coverage. We also previously detailed nationwide efforts aimed at enacting legislation compelling business interruption and contingent business interruption insurance for COVID-19 losses. As of the date of this update, eight states have proposed a number of bills relating to business interruption insurance, and Congress has also waded in.
As the coronavirus cases start peaking in at least some parts of the United States, the American courts are beginning to experience mounting cases relating to claims against businesses for coronavirus infections and against insurers for alleged business interruption coverage. A few weeks ago, some well-known restaurants in the United States commenced litigation against their insurers over claims for insurance coverage stemming from business interruption. These individual cases will raise a number of issues whether there is direct physical loss to covered property and whether the virus exclusions in the policies bar coverage. As a host of other types of businesses have followed by filing a number of individual suits in several states against their insurers. Last week, however, a new form of litigation has been filed with multiple class action insurance coverage lawsuits being brought by alleged representatives against single insures who are claimed to have written business interruption policies to a number of businesses in given areas or nationwide.
The potential cost of business continuity losses is enormous. The Congressional Research Service issued a report to Congress on the financial impact to insurers for the cost of covering business interruption claims. The report explains that some industry sources estimate that the cost of covering business interruption claims ranges from $110 billion to $290 billion per month. In a more recent letter, insurance industry leaders explained, “recent estimates show that business continuity losses just for small businesses of 100 or fewer employees could amount to between $220 billion to $383 billion per month. Meanwhile, the total surplus for all of the U.S. home, auto, and business insurers combined to pay all future losses is only $800 billion.”
In the first of what will likely be an exponentially growing tide of businesses turning to insurance coverage for financial relief from the economic downturn caused by the global coronavirus pandemic and response, on March 17, 2020, a restaurant filed a lawsuit seeking business interruption insurance coverage for alleged losses caused by executive orders issued by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. In Cajun Conti LLC, et al. v. Certain Underwriters, et al., the plaintiff-restaurant (“Oceana Grill”) filed its lawsuit seeking coverage under an alleged “all risks” commercial property insurance policy that Oceana Grill purchased from the defendant-insurer. Oceana Grill alleges that the policy provides “property, business personal property, business income and extra expense, and ordinance or law coverage” caused by “all risks” unless specifically excluded (unlike a “specified” or “named” “perils” policy, which provides coverage for loss resulting from specific, named risks).
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A key issue that many insurance companies will face in the upcoming weeks and months is whether their policies provide coverage for policyholders’ business interruption losses from the COVID-19 crisis. This is not merely an academic question: the first coverage case on this issue was filed in Louisiana this week (Cajun Conti, LLC, et al. v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s London, et al.) and legislatures are already considering legislation that may significantly impact the insurance industry (see New Jersey’s proposed legislation on insurance coverage for COVID-19 business interruption claims and letter from members of Congress to insurer trade groups encouraging the acceptance of business interruption coverage for COVID-19 losses).
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Based on growing concerns over the spread of COVID-19, large public gatherings, such as conferences and other events, are being cancelled at an increasing rate throughout the United States, and internationally. More than 50,000 people signed an online petition requesting the cancellation of the multi-day South by Southwest event in Austin, Texas. That and other conferences and large events are being cancelled daily. With at least 3,300 world-wide deaths, and approximately 200 confirmed cases in the U.S., large public events will continue to be cancelled for the near future.
Impacting the decision to cancel conferences and other large public events, large corporations are issuing policies (changing almost daily) such as: no nonessential travel; employees can attend conferences only if the conference has a travel ban from certain countries (i.e., you, employee, can attend the conference, but only if the conference bans attendance of people from certain COVID-19 troubled countries); and no attending public events larger than 10 people (last week the policy was 1,000 people or more). Most recently, companies have issued bans on guests being allowed onto their premises, and/or issued a mandatory work from home policy.
What are the legal ramifications of each of these edicts? Or of cancellations of conferences and other large public events? What happens to the contracts for each of these events, such as contracts with the attendees, the site, the vendors, the airlines, consultants, speakers, performers etc. What are the legal ramifications and what will be the financial impact from these cancellations? Will you be able to make an insurance claim to protect you?
Insurance companies are starting to see numerous notifications under Event Cancellation insurance. But will the cancellation be covered by your policy? Are you trying to submit a claim for cancelling an event due to the attendees’ fear, or event organizer’s fear of spreading or catching COVID-19 even though there is no ban on the event going forward? That may not be a covered claim. While you may decide to cancel the event, just know that the cancellation may not be covered because the cancellation was not beyond the control of the event organizer. Additionally, the typical cancellation insurance policy likely contains exclusions that come into play (e.g., the Communicable Disease exclusion – excluding coverage where fear causes a cancellation due to the World Health Organization’s world epidemic determination). Don’t assume your Event Cancellation Insurance will cover your expenses related to canceling.
Other insurance companies are seeing notifications of claims for Business Interruption coverage. Presenting a covered claim under a Business Interruption Insurance policy may be difficult. The first question will be: Does the cause of loss qualify under the policy for coverage? Recently, the UK made COVID-19 a registered notifiable disease to allow insurance claims to be filed. What will happen in the U.S.? And, what is the “loss”? Are there applicable exclusions precluding coverage? Unless you have a specific and unusual insurance policy, recovering under an insurance policy for expenses due to COVID-19 may be very difficult.
These are just some of the legal issued to be sorted out in the coming months. But without recourse to insurance coverage, the contract disputes become even more key.
For more on Force Majeure Contract Clauses and COVID-19, see the March 4, 2020 Duane Morris Alert.