All posts tagged 'AES v. Steadfast'

The Implications of American Electric Power v. Connecticut for the Duty to Defend

April 24, 2011 18:52
by J. Wylie Donald
We were interviewed by Business Insurance last week after the Virginia Supreme Court heard argument in AES Corp. v. Steadfast Insurance Co. The topic du jour:  what would be the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in American Electric Power v Connecticut. Obviously, an insurance readership would very much like to know if carbon dioxide liability was something they needed to continue to worry about. Much of the blogosphere has concluded that the justices didn't give much credence to the public nuisance theories of the plaintiffs (we reserve judgment on that conclusion - there were some pretty tough questions posed to the appellants too). If that is so, then carbon dioxide liability is something like Y2K, right? Unfortunately, we fear that is not the case. The concerns over Y2K reached their zenith at 1159 on December 31, 1999. By 1201 on January 1, 2000 most everyone had slapped each other on the back and moved on. Story over. Concerns over carbon dioxide liability are unlikely to have that sharp crest.  If a decision favorable to carbon dioxide emitters is issued by the Supreme Court, that will only mean that federal common law nuisance claims cannot move forward. It says nothing about state law nuisance claims, nor new theories that have not yet been tested, nor even thought up. We strongly believe that carbon dioxide liability suits will be with us for a while yet. Our reason:  climate change is ongoing and those whose interests are harmed will look for succor. So theories of liability will be spun and suits will be brought.  And such suits will require a defense.  All of which leads us back to AES v. Steadfast.  The Virginia Supreme Court will render a decision on one state's law on likely only one issue. Indeed, at oral argument, Steadfast's counsel conceded the result would be different in other jurisdictions. Thus, insureds concerned about carbon dioxide liability should be paying attention to choice of law rules, and to the range of issues where choice of law matters. Let's look at just the two issues in dispute in AES, the application of the pollution exclusion and the meaning of occurrence. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has already ruled that exhaled carbon dioxide is not a "pollutant" and numerous jurisdictions have held that a so-called "absolute" pollution exclusion is not absolute.  Donaldson v. Urban Land Interests, Inc., 564 N.W.2d 728, 730 (Wis. 1997); Am. States Ins. Co. v. Koloms, 687 N.E.2d 72 (Ill. 1997) (carbon monoxide); W. Am. Ins. Co. v. Tufco Flooring E., Inc., 409 S.E.2d 692 (N.C. Ct. App. 1991) (floor sealant); Cont’l Cas. Co. v. Rapid-Am. Corp., 593 N.Y.S.2d 966 (1993) (asbestos); Keggi v. Northbrook Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 13 P.3d 785 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2000) (bacteria).   As for occurrence, in many jurisdictions there is no question that an occurrence is determined by looking at the intentionality of the injury from the subjective standpoint of the insured, rather than the reasonably foreseeable standard argued by the insurer in AES. Compare Ohio Cas. V. Henderson, 939 P.2d 1337 (Ariz. 1997); Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co. v. Pacchetti, 808 S.W.2d 369 (Mo. 1991) with Brief of Appellee, AES Corp. v. Steadfast Ins. Co., No. 100764 (Va. Sup. Ct. Oct 8, 2010).  Accordingly, it would be extremely shortsighted for insureds to assume every jurisdiction is like every other.  Potential carbon dioxide liability defendants should take two steps going forward. They should ascertain what state's law will be applied on the liability contract they are purchasing today and how that law is likely to address the carbon dioxide liability coverage questions. And they should be asking the same questions for past occurrence-based policies.  And of course, if the oracles and seers who have channeled the Supreme Court turn out to be wrong, the need for coverage and the answers to these questions will manifest themselves much sooner. Brief of Appellee, AES Corp. v. Steadfast Ins. Co..pdf (182.69 kb)     

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance | Supreme Court

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