Liquor Liability Exclusion Bars Coverage for the Four Loko Bodily Injury Lawsuits

In Phusion Projects, Inc. v. Selective Ins. Co., No. 1-15-0172, 2015 Ill. App. LEXIS 942 (Ill. App. Dec. 18, 2015), the manufacturers of the alcoholic beverage “Four Loko” (collectively “Phusion”) filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that their commercial liability insurer was required to defend and indemnify Phusion in six underlying bodily injury claims. Selective claimed it was not required to defend Phusion because of the policy’s liquor liability exclusion. The trial court agreed and dismissed Phusion’s complaint. Phusion appealed, and the Appellate Court affirmed the underlying decision.

Four Loko is a fruit-flavored malt beverage which contains 12% alcohol by volume, as well as taurine and guarana. During the relevant time period, Four Loko also contained 135 milligrams of caffeine. The underlying suits alleged that the plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by either their own or another individual’s consumption of Four Loko and subsequent intoxication, mainly due to the inclusion of the stimulants in the Four Loko product.

The CGL policy excluded coverage for “bodily injury…for which any insured may be held liable by reason of (1) causing or contributing to the intoxication of any person.” The exclusion applied only where the insured was “in the business of manufacturing, distributing, selling, serving, or furnishing alcoholic beverages.”

In its initial motion to dismiss the declaratory judgment action, Selective relied on the policy’s liquor liability exclusion. Selective cited to a Federal District Court opinion excluding coverage for Phusion based on an identical liquor liability exclusion. Netherlands Insurance Co. v. Phusion Projects, Inc., 2012 WL 123921 (N.D. Ill. Jan 17, 2012). Phusion argued the underlying lawsuits were not based on liquor liability, but were based on “stimulant liability,” pointing to the allegations that Phusion was liable for adulterating its Four Loko products with caffeine, guarana, and taurine. Phusion pointed to the underlying plaintiffs’ claims that the addition of these stimulants desensitized consumers of Four Loko to the symptoms of intoxication, and caused them to act recklessly. In its reply, Selective relied on the Seventh Circuit’s holding in Netherlands, which recognized that “the presence of energy stimulants in a [sic] alcoholic drink has no legal effect on the applicability of a liquor liability exclusion.” The trial court held the terms of the insurance policy and liquor liability exclusion made it “clear that coverage is excluded when there are claim[s] that an individual sustained bodily injury caused by intoxication,” and therefore Selective had no duty to defend or indemnify Phusion for the lawsuits.

On appeal, Phusion argued that the exclusion did not apply to manufacturers, but rather only to “those in the liquor business to preserve host liquor liability coverage.” Phusion relied on cases establishing that the voluntary consumption of alcohol is the proximate cause of an injury rather than the manufacture of the beverages. The Appellate Court rejected this argument as relevant only to Phusion’s liability in the underlying suits, and not Selective’s duty to defend or indemnify Phusion in those suits. The court instead followed the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation of the exclusion in Netherlands, finding the plain and ordinary meaning of the exclusion applied to “claims of bodily injury…where Phusion may be held liable because it either caused or contributed to the intoxication of any person,” an exclusion which applied specifically to those in the business of manufacturing alcoholic beverages.

Phusion also argued that intoxication was not the “sole and proximate cause” of the injuries asserted in the underlying lawsuits, but that some allegations such as the addition of stimulants to the product fell outside the liquor liability exclusion and were therefore potentially covered by the policy. The court disagreed, finding that Illinois law actually requires an allegation of a proximate cause “wholly independent” from the excluded coverage. The court found that “in order for the underlying lawsuits at issue here to fall within the insurance policy and, thus, outside the liquor liability exclusion, each of the complaints must allege facts that are independent from the event that led to the injury,” requiring that the underlying complaints allege facts “that are independent of ‘causing or contributing to the intoxication of any person.’” Here, it was impossible for anyone to suffer injuries due to the inclusion of stimulants in the product absent consumption of and subsequent intoxication due to Four Loko. It was “[t]he supply of alcohol, regardless of what it is mixed with,” that was “the relevant factor to determine whether an insured caused or contributed to the intoxication of any person.” Quoting the Seventh Circuit, the Court found Phusion’s decision to mix energy stimulants and alcohol “might not have been a very good one,” but did “not amount to tortious conduct that is divorced from the serving of alcohol.” Therefore, the allegations of the underlying complaint fell within the liquor liability exclusion, and Selective had no duty to defend Phusion in the underlying actions.

Courts often struggle with whether to apply policy exclusions in the face of alternative theories of liability in the underlying case, especially when one of those theories arguably falls outside the scope of the exclusion. Here, however, the court appropriately relied on the broad scope of the exclusion and rejected the insured’s efforts to circumvent the exclusion by parsing the allegations of the underlying complaint.