Insurers Face Two New Cases Seeking Commercial Property Coverage For COVID-19; One Alleges Extracontractual Claims
Two Napa-based restaurants and a number of Chicago-area businesses claiming economic losses from closing their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 filed suits in California and Illinois, respectively, late last week. The plaintiffs in the Illinois suit allege statutory bad faith based, in part, on a memorandum setting forth the insurance company’s views on coverage and an alleged failure to investigate.
The owners of French Laundry, a prominent restaurant in Napa, California and another Napa establishment owned by prominent restauranteur Thomas Keller filed suit in Napa County Superior Court. See French Laundry Partners, LP d/b/a The French Laundry, et. al. v. Hartford Fire Insurance Company, et. al. The plaintiffs are represented by counsel including the Louisiana-based attorneys who filed the Cajun Conti case, believed to be the first case of its kind seeking coverage under a commercial property policy for business closures related to COVID-19. Additionally, owners of restaurants, pubs, and a theater in Chicago filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. See Big Onion Tavern Group, LLC, et. al. v. Society Insurance, Inc. In what appears to be one of the first cases to do so, the Big Onion plaintiffs assert extra-contractual claims based on an alleged failure to investigate and seek statutory penalties.
The French Laundry plaintiffs make allegations similar to the Cajun Conti plaintiffs. However, the French Laundry plaintiffs further allege that their “Property Choice Deluxe Form specifically extends coverage to direct physical loss or damage caused by virus.” The French Laundry plaintiffs further rely on an order of the health officer of Napa County which they assert “specifically states that it is being issued based on evidence of physical damage to property.” The Order states, in part, that it is “issued based on evidence of increasing occurrence of COVID-19 throughout the Bay Area, increasing likelihood of occurrence of COVID-19 within the County, and the physical damage to property caused by the virus.”
The French Laundry complaint goes on to allege that “property that is damaged is in the immediate area of the Insured Properties.” This allegation is apparently aimed at triggering Civil Authority Coverage, which can provide coverage following civil action or order by a civil authority where there is direct physical loss or damage to other or adjacent property. The common allegation in the initial COVID-19 coverage lawsuits that the presence of a virus on any property—whether the covered property or adjacent property—will continue to be a hotly contested issue in the absence of any actual evidence that COVID-19 is present inside the insured premises or nearby properties, let alone causes direct physical loss or damage. Further, the primary bases for the orders that are being issued by various state and local governments and agencies are to prevent the spread of COVID-19 due to public health concerns and to promote social distancing.
The Big Onion plaintiffs allege that they obtained business interruption coverage “to protect their businesses from situations like these, which threaten their livelihoods based on factors wholly outside of their control.” The Big Onion complaint cites to the lack of a virus exclusion in the subject policies. According to the Big Onion plaintiffs, such exclusions typically provide that the insurer will “not pay for loss, cost, or expense caused by, resulting from, or relating to any virus. . . that causes disease, illness, or physical distress or that is capable of causing disease, illness, or physical distress.” Some exclusions go on to provide that the policy does not apply to any expense incurred as a result of contamination or “denial of access to property because of any virus. . . .” The plaintiffs in Big Onion appear to focus more on the lack of an exclusion for viruses for the proposition that the presence of a virus should be viewed to involve physical harm, rather than on specific allegations that COVID-19 is present within any covered premises or other or adjacent property. They contend that if viruses could never cause “physical harm,” there would be no need for a virus exclusion, which is a debatable proposition at best.
Of note, the Big Onion complaint cites to and attaches a memorandum purportedly issued “before many of the Plaintiffs had submitted their claims” by “the CEO of Society Insurance . . . prospectively concluding that Society Insurance’s policies would likely not provide coverage for losses due to a ‘governmental imposed shutdown due to COVID-19 (coronavirus).’”1 The complaint asserts a claim for “Statutory Penalty for Bad Faith Denial of Insurance Under 215 ILCS 5/155” based on an alleged failure by Society Insurance to conduct an investigation as well as the referenced memorandum. The Big Onion plaintiffs allege that “[t]o make matters worse, based on information and belief, Society Insurance directed its insurance agents, who are not Plaintiffs’ agents, to make sham claim notifications before Society Insurance’s policyholders even noticed their claims. Society Insurance took these actions, before claims were even submitted, as part of its plan to discourage claim notifications and to avoid any responsibility for its policyholders’ staggering losses. . . .”
It remains to be seen whether the insurer defendants in these cases will seek to dismiss these complaints based on the lack of a triggering event. Indeed, without any evidence that COVID-19 contaminated covered property or adjacent property, the mere order to close a business to prevent the spread of the virus should be insufficient to trigger coverage. This is in addition to the fact that case law across the country supports the conclusion that the presence of a virus, which can be removed with ordinary cleaning products, does not constitute physical harm. Nonetheless, insurers should take heed of the inclusion in the Big Onion complaint of the memorandum, possibly prepared in anticipation of a request for such a statement from state regulators, before preparing such statements for public distribution.
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1 The risk of—and due process implications of—states such as New Jersey attempting to require insures to issue such advance statements is demonstrated by the Big Onion complaint. The Maryland Insurance Administration took a different approach and on March 18, 2020 issued an Advisory on Business Interruption Insurance that states, in part:
“Business Interruption coverage is typically triggered under a commercial insurance policy when a covered risk / peril causes physical damage to the insured premises resulting in the need to shut down business operations. . . . Some commercial policies provide Business Interruption coverage when a business is shut down due to an Order by a civil authority. However, the policy still typically requires a physical loss from a covered peril as the underlying cause of the business shut down to apply.”