By Max Dorfman, Research Writer, Insurance Information Institute
A new and risky legal precedent could be set as the coronavirus pandemic continues to roil the U.S. economy. A growing number of policyholders say that despite exclusions for bacteria and virus in their business income interruption policies, insurers are acting in bad faith when they deny claims for losses sustained during shutdowns. While business income interruption coverage typically covers physical damage to a property, these businesses believe the potential presence of the virus on their property or in their community is equivalent to physical damage. Business income interruption exclusions for pandemics date back to the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, when insurers realized that the risk of such a massive health crisis would be impossible to credibly quantify, and thus impossible to absorb.
In several recent articles, some plaintiffs’ attorneys have accused insurers of acting in bad faith by issuing quick denials without properly investigating their claims. “Quite frankly, the prevailing law on the insurance policies is that coverage is supposed to be interpreted broadly and exclusions are supposed to be interpreted narrowly,” said William Shernoff, a founding partner of California-based Shernoff Bidart Echeverria LLP, which specializes in representing policyholders in claims against insurance company denials. Shernoff also stated that any inconsistency in a policy means it’s ambiguous and would result in a decision favoring the plaintiffs.
Michael Menapace, an insurance lawyer and a Triple-I non-resident scholar, disagrees. “They’re trying to recast what the damage is from the policy trigger of “direct physical loss of or damage to property” to a broader concept of “loss of use,” which term does not appear in most policies. They’re also going to claim that somehow the entire insurance industry tricked policyholders by sneaking in the virus exclusion. There is a tension between the plain meaning rule [what the exclusion literally states], and the doctrine of reasonable expectations [the way someone who is not trained in the law would interpret them].” He continued, “When an insurance company denies a claim, they may get the decision wrong – but it doesn’t mean they denied it in bad faith.” Menapace adds that the virus exclusion has not been tested in the courts on any large scale since its adoption in 2006. “There’s so little case law on virus exclusions during pandemics, I have a hard time believing insurers are acting in bad faith.”
There are many reasons for the insurance industry not to act in bad faith under these circumstances. An insurer that is deemed to have acted in bad faith can be liable for damages that are greater than the policy limits, including but not limited to interest, emotional distress, consequential economic losses, attorneys’ fees and punitive damages.
Menapace also makes the point that business income interruption claims from a pandemic would rapidly deplete insurers’ reserves and surplus that are needed for covered losses such as those from hurricanes and other perils. “We can insure certain events because there is a spreading of risk,” saidMenapace. “If everyone has the same loss at the same time, like from a pandemic, we lose the fundamental aspect of insurance, which is risk spreading.”
Much depends on how the courts interpret the exclusions. “Insurers said they were not going to cover damage due to pandemics. There is going to be new law created. It depends whether the courts will read the plain meaning of the exclusion, or if they’ll interpret some of the creative arguments of the plaintiffs.” If these contracts will retroactively favor the insured, Menapace added, it could force insurers to stop covering business income interruption in any scenario, as the costs would simply be too great. And that would be truly bad for policyholders and insurers alike.