*Republished with permission of the Insurance Coverage Law Bulletin and Connecticut Law Tribune.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court’s recent decision in Mellin v. N. Sec. Ins. Co., 115 A.3d 799, 2015 N.H. LEXIS 32 (N.H. 2015), is getting some attention, and not just because it’s fun to talk about cat pee. The case sets a very important precedent regarding the definition of the term “physical loss” and the construction of pollution exclusions in New Hampshire property insurance policies. It is a decision that is likely going to create uncertainty and increased risk for insurers going forward. The scent-illuminating subject matter is just an added bonus.
The facts started out simply enough. The plaintiffs owned a condominium unit, and their downstairs neighbor had two feline cohabitants. The plaintiffs leased their unit to a tenant in 2009 and 2010, and that tenant was the first person to notice that something didn’t smell right. In November 2010, the tenant decided that he would rather find a new place to live than continue to put up with the noxious odors emanating from below. Undeterred, the plaintiffs moved in themselves and promptly filed an insurance claim under their homeowner’s policy. That claim was denied.
In a continued attempt to take control of the odiferous situation, the plaintiffs contacted the local building and health inspector. After examining the unit, the inspector advised, by way of a letter dated Dec. 22, 2010, that the plaintiffs had “a health problem existing,” and the odor was such that they needed “to move out of the apartment temporarily and have a company terminate the odor.” Unfortunately, remediation efforts were no match for the persistent and pervasive smell of cat urine. The plaintiffs apparently steeled themselves, presumably invested in some scented candles or at least a large can of air freshener, and moved back into the condo until Feb. 1, 2011. At that point, the plaintiffs sold the unit after determining that they could no longer lease it to tenants. Unsurprisingly, they asserted that “the sale price for the unit was significantly less than that for a comparable condominium in the area which was unaffected by cat urine odor.”
In light of this loss and the denial of their claim by the homeowner’s insurer, Northern Security Insurance Company, Inc. (“Northern Security”), the plaintiffs ultimately brought suit, seeking a declaration that they were entitled to coverage for a “direct physical loss” to the unit, namely odor from cat urine. Northern Security moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the smell did not constitute a “physical loss,” and that the claim was barred by the policy’s pollution exclusion.
The trial court ruled in the insurer’s favor, and the plaintiffs appealed. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire began by reciting familiar principles of insurance contract construction: terms shall be accorded their plain meaning; the burden of proof rests with the insurer in a declaratory judgment action; and ambiguities must be construed in favor of coverage.
Are Noxious Odors a ‘Physical Loss’?
The first issue on appeal was whether the trial court erred in holding that the term “physical loss” required a “tangible physical alteration” of the unit, and that the continuous and noxious wafting of cat urine odor did not constitute such a tangible physical alteration. In addressing this issue, the court noted that the term “physical loss” was undefined in the plaintiffs’ policy, and cited the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary for the definition of “physical”: “[o]f or pertaining to matter, or the world as perceived by the senses; material as [opposed] to mental or spiritual.” Based on that definition, the court concluded that the term “physical loss” need not be read to include only tangible changes to the property that can be seen or touched, but can also encompass changes that are perceived by the sense of smell.
Turning to case law, the court first recognized that some jurisdictions, like Michigan, have adopted a definition of “physical loss” that is, in fact, restricted to “tangible” changes. In support of its conclusion, however, the court went on to note “a substantial body of case law in which a variety of contaminating conditions, including odors, have been held to constitute a physical loss to property.” Here, the court cited cases from several jurisdictions that, in its view, support a more liberal interpretation of “physical loss.” Among those cases, the court cited decisions from Connecticut (asbestos and lead contamination was physical loss), New Jersey (ammonia release), and Colorado (gasoline vapors).
While the insurer urged the court to follow its own prior definition of the term “physical injury,” the court refused because the case relied upon by Northern Security, Webster v. Acadia Insurance Company, 156 N.H. 317 (2007), turned on the interpretation of the term “property damage” contained in Coverage E, pertaining to personal liability. While the Mellins’ homeowner’s policy contained that same definition, the personal liability coverage part of that policy was not at issue. Simply put, the Mellins’ claim was one for first-party, not third-party, coverage, and was thus distinguishable from Webster.
In ultimately rejecting the trial court’s holding that “physical loss” required “tangible changes,” the New Hampshire Supreme Court articulated the standard that “physical loss” requires only a “distinct and demonstrable alteration to the unit” not limited to structural changes and including changes perceived by smell. Interestingly, the trial court’s holding gave effect to the “physical” component of the term “physical loss” by including an ostensible synonym — “tangible” — in its standard of interpretation, while the court did not. Rather than deciding the coverage issue however, the court instead remanded the case to the trial court to apply the newly articulated standard for “physical loss.”
Is the Noxious Odor of Cat Urine Excluded By the ‘Pollution’ Exclusion?
The court next considered the issue of whether the policy’s pollution exclusion would allow Northern Security to relieve itself of its coverage obligation. The operative exclusion disclaimed coverage for “pollutants,” which were defined, in pertinent part, as: “any … irritant or contaminant, including … vapor … [and] fumes.” You may have read that definition, looked at the legal standard above that states that terms must be accorded their plain meaning, and assumed that this second issue would be easily resolved in the insurer’s favor. If so, you would be wrong.
The court began by stating that this definition did not render the term “pollutant” unambiguous. The terms “irritant” and “contaminant” were impugned as “virtually boundless, for there is no substance or chemical in existence that would not irritate or damage some person or property.” As such the definitional phrase “any … irritant or contaminant” was held to be too broad to meaningfully define “pollutant.” Further, the court was persuaded that because other courts have construed similarly worded pollution exclusions in different ways, this meant that the exclusion was ambiguous.
Curiously, nowhere in the court’s analysis did it consider the Oxford definition of the word “fumes”: “Gas, smoke or vapor that smells strongly or is dangerous to inhale; a pungent odor of a particular thing or substance.” It would appear that the latter portion of this definition would end the inquiry, since the smell of cat urine is quite plainly “a pungent odor of a particular thing or substance.” Yet, the court did not engage in this analysis.
Instead, the court held that the policy’s invocation of “vapor” and “fumes,” among other terms, “brings to mind products or byproducts of industrial production that may cause environmental pollution or contamination.” As such, the court held that a reasonable policyholder would not expect these terms to exclude damage resulting from everyday activities gone awry. The court concluded its analysis by construing the ambiguous term “pollutants” in favor of coverage, and holding that the exclusion did not serve to preclude coverage.
In a stinging dissent, Justice Robert J. Lynn harshly criticized the majority’s holding that the pollution exclusion did not apply. Justice Lynn reasoned that “[t]he cat urine at issue in this case fits squarely within the plain and ordinary meaning of contaminant, and is thus a pollutant as defined in the pollution exclusion clause.” He pointed out that the breadth of the exclusion does not mean that it eluded definition and was rendered ambiguous, and further urged that it is ambiguity, not over-breadth, that provides the court with a license to look beyond the plain meaning of the policy. He went so far as to call the majority’s approach “dubious” in following a case that was focused on the historical genesis of environmental pollution exclusions rather than focusing on the plain meanings of the terms at issue. Justice Lynn pointed out that “when a policy’s meaning and intent are clear, it is not the prerogative of the courts to create ambiguities where none exist or rewrite the contract in attempting to avoid harsh results.” He concluded by stating that if the pollution exclusion was overly broad, the remedy must be provided by the open market or the legislature, and not through “creative judicial construction of clear policy language.”
All kittens aside, the Mellin decision is bound to leave a physical mark on first-party coverage suits involving “property damage” claims. New Hampshire insurers are going to have a hard time figuring out what isn’t covered as a “physical loss.” The new standard that any “distinct and demonstrable alteration of the unit” could constitute a “physical loss” exposes insurers to endless possibilities of property damage. Since the irremediable stench of cat urine emanating from an adjacent property can satisfy this standard, there is no telling what other odors may satisfy the standard as well. The smell of garbage, sewage, fertilizer, or farm animals kept at a nearby property could potentially trigger coverage, not just for homeowners, but for businesses as well. Likewise, a restaurant moving into the neighborhood and filling the air with the fragrance of faraway spices and fry-a-lator oil might be a covered loss, not otherwise excluded by the pollution exclusion. Looking beyond smells, it stands to reason that an increase or decrease in the amount of sunlight an insured property receives could cause a “distinct and demonstrable change.” Now that there is no requirement of a “tangible” loss, the barn door seems to be wide open for new and creative claims.
Second, it is not clear what language insurers could include in their policies, short of adding increasingly specific language, which would persuasively exclude claims of this type. On its face, it would seem that an exclusion referring to “fumes” would serve to exclude a claim based on urine smells. Yet this is obviously not the case, at least in New Hampshire, and potentially not in any state recognizing the reasonable expectation of the insured over the plain language of the policy. For insureds, on the other hand, it may be viewed as the cat’s whiskers — at least until premiums catch up to the risk.
In sum, the facts of the Mellin case may seem trivial, but the holding is significant as it has far-ranging repercussions for property insurance in New Hampshire and beyond.