Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds That Employer’s Liability Exclusion Does Not Exclude Coverage for Employee Claim Against Non-Employer Additional Insured

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that an employer’s liability exclusion in an umbrella policy did not apply to a claim brought by the named insured’s employee against an additional insured. Mutual Benefit v. Politsopoulous, — A.3d — (Pa. 2015). In Politsopoulous, the insurer issued a commercial umbrella liability policy to a restaurant that conferred additional insured status on the restaurant’s landlord by virtue of the policy’s blanket additional insured endorsement and the corresponding insurance requirements of the lease agreement. A restaurant employee sued the landlord for injuries sustained when she fell down a flight of stairs. The insurer denied the landlord’s request for coverage based on the employer’s liability exclusion and filed a declaratory judgment action in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas.  That exclusion barred coverage for an injury to “[a]n ‘employee’ of the insured arising out of and in the course of . . . [e]mployment by the insured].” Mutual Benefit contended that the phrase “the insured” meant that coverage was excluded for injuries to employees of the named insured, while the additional insured contended that the exclusion should be applied separately to each insured seeking coverage. In other words, because the plaintiff was not the landlord’s employee, the exclusion should not apply.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Mutual Benefit explaining that it was bound by Pa. Mfrs’ Assoc. Ins. Co. v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Ins. Co., 233 A.2d 548, 549 (Pa. 1967). In that case, the court held that the phrase “’[t]he insured’ has not been interpreted to mean ‘an insured’ or ‘any insured.’ It has merely been interpreted as the language dictates, to include the named insured.” 33 A.2d at 550. Because it was bound by PMA, the trial court held that the phrase “the insured” in the restaurant policy’s employer’s liability exclusion encompassed the named insured as a matter of law. Accordingly, the trial court held that the exclusion applied because the employee suing the additional insured was an employee of the named insured. The trial court, however, criticized the logic of the PMA decision and invited appellate review.

The Superior Court reversed the trial court on the basis of the policy’s severability clause, explaining that the severability clause required the court to take the following approach to policy interpretation:

When determining coverage as to any one insured, the policy must be applied as though there were only one insured, i.e., the one as to which coverage is to be determined . . . [this] policy language directs us to evaluate coverage as though Employer does not exist.

Mut. Benefit Ins. Co. v. Politopoulos, 75 A.3d 528, 536 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013). Accordingly, the Superior Court reasoned that, when treating the landlords as the only insureds under the policy, the employer’s liability exclusion did not apply since the landlords did not employ the underlying plaintiff. Id. at 537.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision, but disagreed with its reasoning. Though it did not overrule PMA, the Politsopoulous Court “decline[d] to extend PMA’s expansive construction of the term ‘the insured’ to an instance in which a commercial general liability policy variously makes use of the terms ‘the insured’ and ‘any insured.’” Accordingly, the Court held that the phrase “the insured” was ambiguous: “[A]t least where a commercial general liability policy makes varied use of the definite and indefinite articles, this, as a general rule, creates an ambiguity relative to the former, such that ‘the insured’ may be reasonable taken as signifying the particular insured against whom a claim is asserted.” Since, under Pennsylvania law, ambiguous exclusionary language is construed against the insurer, the Politopoulos court held that the exclusion did not apply because “the ambiguous exclusionary language pertains only to claims asserted by employees of ‘the insured’ against whom the claim is directed.”

Although the outcome of this particular case is not surprising, the Supreme Court provided an articulate analysis of how the use of definite and indefinite articles in association with the word “insured” throughout a policy can give rise to an ambiguity when considered in the context of particular policy exclusions. The debate over “the insured” versus “any insured” is sure to continue, but we can expect the Politopoulos case to be a part of that discussion in Pennsylvania going forward.