As you have undoubtedly heard, the COVID-19 pandemic caused countless businesses to turn to their insurance companies for assistance, making claims under their policies for business interruption coverage. While every insured’s policy is different, insurance companies are almost universally denying such claims. Business owners are left frustrated and wondering what exactly they have been paying for when it comes to business interruption coverage.
In denying claims, insurance companies argue that business interruption insurance is not meant to cover closures related to COVID-19. Under most policies, business interruption coverage only applies if there has been a direct physical loss of use or damage to property related to a covered loss. While many insureds argue that a virus contaminating the surface of their property is a loss of use, and thus covered, insurance companies have generally rejected such arguments, instead requiring direct physical damage. Moreover, many policies contain exclusions for viruses, pollution, and bacteria, yet another means to deny coverage. While coverage for acts of civil authority may give an insured some hope of coverage, that coverage is typically limited to when the civil authority closed down a business because of the physical damage to the insured’s or nearby property.
But, like so many other things in law and life, these issues are open to interpretation. To that end, numerous lawsuits were filed to try to obtain coverage. While most of the lawsuits are recent, and litigation can take years to meander through the system, several litigants are pushing to get decisions from the courts sooner rather than later. Most recently, a restaurateur in Pittsburgh sued Erie Insurance Exchange relative to Erie’s denial of business interruption coverage. Thereafter, the restaurateur petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to use its Kings Bench powers to consolidate all of the business interruption cases with a single Common Pleas Court, urging the assigning of multiple judges to the matters so they are decided swiftly. The insured argued that these are matters of extraordinary public importance and swift intervention is needed. Notably, there was no request that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court itself take on the administration of these cases. In another arena, litigants are asking the federal courts to consolidate multiple cases and invoking the multi-district litigation protocols. Making things even more complicated, there is pending legislation that could require insurance companies to cover these claims.
Right now, there is no definitive answer as to how the courts will rule on these matters, but there is no question that insureds should be prepared. Certainly, insureds should comply with all notice requirements in their policy so that, if the insurance company accepts coverage or is so ordered by a court, the claims are not denied due to tardy notice.
Please do not hesitate to contact any member of the McNees Real Estate Group or Insurance Group with any questions regarding this post or related matters.