Insurance

Comer Resurgens: Life After American Electric Power v. Connecticut

July 7, 2011 10:23
by J. Wylie Donald
We thought last January, when the Supreme Court denied a writ of mandamus, that the long saga of Ned Comer through the courts had finally come to an end.  We were wrong.  At the end of May, the case, Comer, et al. v. Murphy's Oil USA, et al. (attached), was refiled in the Southern District of Mississippi.  Although predating the Supreme Court's June decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, one could be excused for concluding that it was filed afterward as it relegates federal common law to a sentence and instead is all about state law causes of action. But before we get into the resurgent Comer, we thought we would point out a June paper published by the Geneva Association, an insurance industry think tank.  One of the industries most affected by climate change is insurance. In Why Insurers Should Focus on Climate Risk Issues, Chief Climate Product Officer, Lindene Patton, outlines some of the risks and opportunities she perceives.   Her perspective is particularly worth considering as her employer, Zurich Financial Services, faces climate change issues across a broad spectrum of activities. (Ms. Patton notes, however, that the positions in the paper are hers alone.) Ms. Patton's views are insightful:  "society at large appears increasingly underinsured for the impacts of climate change at the time of its greatest need."  And they are ominous:  "Unless global societal risk management of climate change improves, the mismatch between the loss exposure and monies needed to cover economic loss associated with climate change-related severe weather events and other impacts will only become more extreme."  The solution she calls for is for insurance companies to take the lead to overcome the current "governance gap with respect to climate change policy."  Even without leadership, important social decisions can be made if the right price signals (i.e., premiums) are sent. Such signals can lead to "cogent risk management decision-taking" and assist in the spreading and management of climate change risks. An example of such price signals from an earlier period are the fire proofing of much of America as the result of the insurance industry's support of fire codes and the underwriting to go with them. The alternative to leadership in the marketplace is what Ms. Patton refers to as the frictional costs of litigation. In some cases those costs can be trivial, such as occurred with Y2K. In other cases, the outcomes can be devastating -- think asbestos and tobacco, on which insurers have paid, by some estimates, $150 billion and $750 billion respectively. Driving litigation in the climate change sphere is the relatively unknown fact of "a trend of decreasing percentage of insured loss when calculated as a percentage of damages from extreme weather events on an annualized basis."  Stated more simply, those harmed by hurricanes are not insured or are underinsured and the path to being made whole lies with a judge, not with an adjuster. The litigation path is not set out in black and white. Yet. But there are areas that may be fruitful for plaintiffs. Ms. Patton identifies SEC disclosure rules, fractional allocation (market share) schemes, and de minimus liability regimes as potential routes for "activist judges to find liability associated with" greenhouse gas emissions.  Regardless of the theory du jour, the ongoing injuries and displacement caused by climate change "may ultimately end up over a number of years in dedicated, repeated efforts by plaintiffs to find a legal theory that 'sticks' as happened in tobacco or asbestos." Which brings us back to Ned Comer and his protean and unvanquishable litigation.  All remember Hurricane Katrina; most will recall the lawsuit filed 20 days after Katrina made landfall.  In various iterations it sued insurance companies, mortgage lenders, oil companies, electric utilities, coal companies, and chemical companies; it alleged against all of the greenhouse-gas-emitting defendants responsibility for Katrina's "unprecedented" ferocity.  Its appellate travails are legend.  Following dismissal in the district court, and reinstatement by a Fifth Circuit panel, that decision was vacated when the Fifth Circuit accepted the case for en banc argument, and then dismissed the case when its quorum dissolved.  The petition for mandamus did not avail and everyone thought the case was gone. Everyone, that is, except Ned Comer's lawyers.  On May 27, 2011 Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc. was re-filed.  It is a monstrous class action lawsuit with over 90 named corporate defendants - a crowd even larger than the earlier iterations of the case.  Like a Who's Who of particular industries, it alleges against classes of oil companies, utilities and coal companies, and chemical companies claims in three counts of public and private nuisance, trespass and negligence. But it also includes, almost as afterthoughts, a strict liability claim (¶ 36) and a conspiracy claim (¶ 41).  It concludes with a count for a declaratory judgment that federal law does not preempt state law claims. Ms. Patton's frictional costs are here in vast numbers.  As is her recognition that it is injury rather than an interest in climate change policy that provides the litigation incentive:  "Plaintiffs do not ask this Court to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or change national policy regarding climate change. Instead, Plaintiffs seek legal redress for the damages caused by these Defendants."  (¶ 11). Those damages are broad.  "[Plaintiffs'] homes and property were destroyed by Katrina's destructive winds and storm surge, which effects were increased in frequency and intensity by Defendants' emissions of greenhouse gases." (¶ 18)  "Plaintiffs' property also is damage[d] by sea level rise as a result of submersion and/or increased exposure to hurricanes. (¶ 19) "Plaintiffs' insurance premiums for their coastal Mississippi property have risen dramatically, and the resale values of their homes and property values have plummeted."  (¶ 20) The insurance premium allegation is thought-provoking.  Plaintiffs recognize that proving a particular defendant caused Hurricane Katrina will be difficult. Pleading in the alternative, they assert that the Defendants' greenhouse gas emissions "put Plaintiffs' property at greater risk of flood and storm damage, and dramatically increase Plaintiffs' insurance costs." (¶ 37) They link insurance company efforts to price climate change risk to increased premiums (Ms. Patton's risk-based price signals), and, because those "insurance costs attributable to global warming are distinct and quantifiable", they assert they are entitled to recovery. (¶¶ 38-40)  This theory of damages based on increased risk, rather than actual harm, bears watching. Ms. Patton concludes, "the AEP case only addresses nuisance cases and does not address broader theories under tort liability law.  A verdict for the defendants on the nuisance issue may not arrest the flow of cases and associated defence costs.  The plaintiffs bar may still continue to file demands and claims for other types of tort damages."  We would go further. With apologies to Atlanta, Comer Resurgens demonstrates that the conditional "may" is being replaced by the declarative "will." 20110527 Comer v. Murphy's Oil (re-filed) Complaint.PDF (796.31 kb)

Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Greenhouse Gases | Insurance | Supreme Court

2011 Hurricane Season - Will Florida's Insurer of Last Resort Be Up To It?

May 31, 2011 14:21
by J. Wylie Donald
On the eve of hurricane season, we ponder what would happen if an irresistible force met an immovable object.  To make this concrete, we consider the effect of a Hurricane Katrina-like storm impacting Florida's property insurance program, the centerpiece of which is the actuarially unsound, tax-exempt, non-profit corporation, and insurer of last resort, Citizens' Property Insurance Corporation. The Atlantic hurricane season begins tomorrow. The forecasters at the University of Colorado Hurricane Center predict 16 named storms.  Historically, that is an above average crop. Their methodology is not controversial. After gathering oceanic and atmospheric data - such as sea surface temperature, atmospheric pressure, and wind shear -  in February and March, they then compared those conditions to the historical record and identified the previous seasons that had similar conditions.  All but one (2006) had an above average hurricane season. The distinguishing feature for the exception was that it did not have neutral or La Niña conditions in the Pacific (i.e., El Niño dominated).  The effect of that is to minimize the wind shear in the upper atmosphere, which permits hurricanes to build.    How does an increased hurricane incidence translate to landfalls in the United States?  The forecasters predict an increased probability of landfall.  Of particular note is the ominous comment:  “Except for the very destructive hurricane seasons of 2004-2005, United States coastal residents have experienced no other major landfalling hurricanes since 1999. This recent 9 of 11-year period without any major landfall events should not be expected to continue.”  And what would happen should that probability become reality? One place with a particularly bad outcome may be Florida.  The largest property insurer in the state is Citizens' with over 1.3 million policies insuring $462 billion worth of property.  That is approximately 18 percent of the residential market.  Citizens' estimates that its exposure for a once-a-century storm is $23.4 billion. It has reserves and potential reinsurance of $11.75 billion. That leaves a gap of $11.65 billion.  (For reference, a NOAA report based on inflation-adjusted dollars puts Hurricane Andrew's cost at over $43 billion; the 2004 quartet of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne cost over $45 billion.)  How can this be?  An analysis done in support of HB 1243 in the Florida House of Representatives gives some insight: Citizens' premiums are less than those charged by private insurers - If the premium in the private market for comparable coverage is 15% or more than Citizens' would charge, Citizens' coverage is available to a homeowner.  Citizens' portfolio of risks are not low-budget - If the value of the property is up to $1 million, or $2 million in designated windstorm areas, Citizens' coverage is available to a homeowner. Citizens' insureds can (and do) shop their other coverages in the private market - In designated windstorm areas, property owners can buy non-wind coverage from private insurers and windstorm coverage from Citizens'. Citizens' rates are not actuarially sound - Citizens rates are required to be actuarially sound but were frozen at 2005 levels for all of 2007, 2008 and 2009. Rate increases are capped. Citizens is not required to be solvent - Citizens does not have to meet the solvency requirements of traditional insurers. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, many in Florida recognize it as such.  Companion bills to reform Citizens' were introduced in the Florida Legislature this spring.  HB 1243 and SB 1714 had the support of an "unlikely coalition" of industry, environmental groups, tax watchdogs and free market advocates.  Notwithstanding this diverse support, and the documented flaws in the current program, both bills died at the end of the legislative session.  Citizens' form and operations may be immovable given political realities. Florida will lurch into tomorrow's hurricane season keeping its fingers crossed and hoping that this year's cyclonic trajectories all steer clear of the Sunshine State.  If that hope is not borne out, then the irresistible force of 150 m.p.h. winds may demonstrate that immovable political realities are not.

Insurance | Legislation | Weather

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

Hurricane Modeling Supports the Decision Not to Insure Hurricane Risks Rules the Maryland Court of Special Appeals

March 31, 2011 20:32
by J. Wylie Donald
"Catastrophic risk is different." So concludes an important opinion out of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals filed earlier this month.  In the case of first impression, People's Insurance Counsel Division v. Allstate Insurance Company, the court affirmed the primacy of models and business judgment in the writing of insurance, and further recognized that there is a "gaping difference between ordinary insurance risk and catastrophe risk." The case stems from the decision way back in 2006 by Allstate to advise the Maryland Insurance Administration (MIA) that it did not intend to write any new property policies in certain Maryland counties subject to heightened hurricane risk. As distilled by the court: "certain coastal areas bordering the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay presented an unusually high risk of loss in the event of a catastrophic hurricane. As a result, [Allstate] decided that it was no longer in Allstate's best economic interest to continue to write new property insurance policies in those areas." The MIA concluded that Allstate' business decision was properly made on "an obective basis and [was] neither arbitrary nor unreasonable." However, the state's public advocate, in the guise of the People's Insurance Counsel Division, concluded differently. Following a trip to Maryland's highest court, which confirmed the Division had standing to challenge the MIA's decision, the Division argued that Allstate's determination not to write property policies in certain geographic areas was arbitrary and unreasonable in contravention of Maryland Insurance Article § 19-107. Further, the Division argued that because Allstate had not shown that a hurricane would strike Maryland and that its rates were insufficient to carry that loss, the decision violated § 27-501. Section 19-107 To determine whether it wanted to undertake the risk of hurricanes along the Eastern Seaboard, Allstate retained Applied Insurance Research (AIR) to model the areas of the state and region that were catastrophe-prone, and those that were not.  It concluded that some or all of certain Maryland counties were at a substantially heightened risk of higher levels of hurricane damage than other areas. The model was explained:  "What it did, in order to get down to the zip codes, statistical level, generated the next year 100,000 times. That is, it's doing simulations of the next year, 100,000 times. And what they do in order to do that is they look at the last 100 years of meteorological data to try to come up with a probability of various hurricane strikes." In those 100,000 simulations AIR concluded that there would be eight hurricane strikes that would cause half a billion dollars in damage in Maryland alone. Because Allstate insured a substantial number of properties in these risky areas, it made the "business judgment that further growth at this time could jeopardize [its] anticipated long-term strength." The court quoted the Commissioner in holding that Allstate complied with the law:  "I conclude that Allstate's geographic designation of Hurricane Bands 4-6 had adequate factual support and, therefore, was not arbitrary or unreasonable. Allstate's hurricane bands were developed based on objective and reasonable factors, including modeled hurricane loss data, proximity to water and geographic contiguity. Through its use of the hurricane models, Allstate developed [Average Damage Ratios] ADRs at a zip code level. The higher the ADR, the higher the potential damage the area in the band is likely to sustain in the event of a catastrophic storm." Section 27-501 This section of the Insurance Article forbids an insurer from refusing a "particular insurance risk or class of risk" for "any arbitrary, capricious or unfairly discriminatory reason." The court first held that a decision to stop doing business did not address a particular individual or group of individuals; therefore, because Allstate's decision was "broad-based", section 27-501 simply did not apply. But even if it did, the modeling demonstrated that the decision was not unfairly discriminatory, arbitrary or capricious. The Division asserted that ""Allstate was legally required to show the probability of a catastrophic hurricane striking Maryland in order to justify its no-write decision."  The court was dismissive and characterized the Division's contention as "unreal". The issue faced by Allstate was very plain, syllogistic in fact:  THE ENTIRE EASTERN SEABOARD OF THE UNITED STATES IS AT RISK FROM HURRICANES.MARYLAND IS PART OF THE EASTERN SEABOARD OF THE UNITED STATES.THEREFORE, MARYLAND IS AT RISK FROM HURRICANES (capitals in original).  The court then went on to enumerate the details that the model considered such as historical hurricane reports, weather databases, and property values.  It came down firmly on the value of the model:  "Allstate's use of the AIR Hurricane Model V7.0 cranked out, zip code by zip code, predictive statistical data for 100,000 model years.  We are hard-pressed to understand exactly what more the Division could want." As to the Division's last argument (that prior Court of Special Appeals precedent required Allstate to demonstrate that its rate plan was insufficient to cover catastrophe losses) the court was scathing. Referring to the Division's argument as "fantasy analysis," it demonstrated that the precedent on which the Division relied suffered from a fundamental error in its understanding of the source materials and, as it "was wrong in 1987, ..., as it most assuredly was, it is still wrong 24 years later." The court concluded its analysis with a discussion of catastrophe risk.  It pointed out that for the usual risk, say fire or car accidents, insurers diversify their risk by taking on more insureds.  Where a catastrophic risk is present, however, taking on more insureds increases the risk to the insurer, rather than decreases the risk, because if the catastrophe strikes, all of the insureds will make a claim.  It concluded that catastrophic risk was "unique" and that case law that focused on individual insureds was completely irrelevant. People's Insurance Counsel is significant at a number of levels for those following climate change insurance issues.  First, the modeling data and results were unchallenged.  There are three dominant modeling companies (AIR, EqeCat and Risk Management Solutions) so the Division was not stymied here because Allstate's modeler had a lock on the market. More likely, it was recognized that while a different model might preserve coverage for a few zip codes, the models would not reach fundamentally different outcomes.  If the goal was to ensure that Allstate (and by extension all other insurance companies) could not abandon the front lines of hurricane risk, no model would show that Worcester County (on the ocean) would have a similar risk as Garrett County (at the headwaters of the Potomac). Businesses should take note.  In most businesses, profit is made at the margins.  Employing models to ascertain where the weather-related risks change their character could yield real monetary benefit - as Allstate demonstrated by giving up underwriting in only parts of some counties.   Second, AIR looked at historical weather records. It made no predictions about the future more severe weather called for in climate change models. This reluctance to face the future is not unique to insurance companies.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency takes the same approach in its analysis of flood plains.  We have written elsewhere concerning the head-in-the-sand mentality that afflicts many that are subject to altered climate change risks.  Catastrophe modeling is no different.  We await the case that tests the insurer's ability to rely not on what has happened in the past, but on what is predicted for the future. Third, there is (at the moment anyway) a great belief in the efficiency of the market in identifying the appropriate path for society.  The insurance markets are taking steps to halt the migration to the shore by determining not to insure it.  It remains to be seen whether governments will abide by those business decisions or force dislocations onto the market in order to preserve continued growth in hurricane-prone areas.  Maryland, for the moment, appears to be one state that is allowing the insurance market to shape the future of the shore.  As we have blogged before, other states (notably Florida), are not so laissez-faire.

Insurance | Regulation | Weather

Climate Change and the Supreme Court Part II: Certiorari Granted in Connecticut v. American Electric Power

December 6, 2010 07:35
by J. Wylie Donald
It doesn't take much insight to conclude that today's granting by the Supreme Court of the petition for certiorari in Connecticut v. American Electric Power could be the start of a whole new era in climate change liability lawsuits. If the Supreme Court comes down on the side of the plaintiff States, it may become open season on utilities, coal and petrochemical companies, automobile manufacturers, and anyone else a litigation-minded plaintiff wishes to mulct in damages for carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Potential defendants need to take steps now to identify their insurance coverage and be prepared to give notice. The Supreme Court last looked at climate change in 2007 when it concluded in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), by a 5-4 decision, that the Clean Air Act required the USEPA to consider whether carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were air pollutants within the meaning of the Act. The issue this time is whether the courts should be imposing judicial remedies for injuries allegedly arising from the emission of carbon dioxide, an alleged nuisance. Few reading this blog will need an introduction to Connecticut v. American Electric Power. I won't go over it other than to remind readers that it was filed in New York federal court in 2004 by several states against a collection of carbon dioxide-emitting utilities and was then consolidated with similar cases filed by public interest groups. The basic allegation was that the utilities' carbon dioxide emissions constituted a public nuisance and the plaintiffs sought injunctive relief compelling the utilities to reduce their emissions. On motion, the trial court dismissed the case concluding that the political question doctrine applied because only the political branches (i.e., the legislative and executive arms of the government) could appropriately balance the array of environmental, economic and other issues presented. An appeal followed to the Second Circuit, which reversed and held that the political question doctrine does not preclude federal common law nuisance claims. Following denial of a petition for en banc review, the petition for certiorari was filed on August 2, followed shortly by an amicus curiae brief from the Obama administration. The federal government asserted that the Second Circuit's decision should be vacated because the government was developing regulations and that the courts should stay out. Of course Connecticut v. American Electric Power is not alone. Private and public plaintiffs have brought suit for alleged climate change losses arising in Mississippi, California and Alaska. Although all three cases have been dismissed, the appeal of one was withdrawn, the appellate panel in the second reversed the dismissal, but which was then vacated when the en banc court accepted review and then could not muster a quorum, and the third is pending before the Ninth Circuit. See Cal. v. Gen. Motors Corp., No. C06-05755, 2007 WL 2726871 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 17, 2007), appeal dismissed, No. 07-16908 (9th Cir. June 24, 2009); Comer v. Murphy Oil Co., 2007 WL 6942285 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 30, 2007), rev'd, 585 F.3d 855 (5th Cir. 2009), reh'g granted, 598 F.3d 208 (5th Cir.), appeal dismissed, 607 F.3d 1049 (5th Cir. 2010); Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 663 F.Supp.2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009), appeal pending, No. 09-17490 (9th Cir. Nov. 5, 2009). Quite clearly, the last chapter on these types of lawsuits has not been written. Reading the tea leaves on Connecticut v. American Electric Power will be difficult. To grant a petition for certiorari, only four justices need to approve. With the retirement of Justices Stevens (author of Massachusetts v. EPA) and Souter (who joined in the opinion), and the recusal from Connecticut of Justice Sotomayor (who heard argument at the Second Circuit but did not sign the opinion), a 4-4 decision in Connecticut is certainly possible. That would leave the Second Circuit's decision intact without a Supreme Court decision (which might bode well for the appeal of Kivalina before the Ninth Circuit). IMPLICATIONS FOR A DECISION Emitters of carbon dioxide are hoping for a clean decision that puts the climate change liability genie back in the bottle and lays the theory of federal common law nuisance in its grave. But what if that does not occur? There is certainly a fair chance that the justices either affirm the theory, or, 4-4, do not reject it. In that case, plaintiffs' lawyers are very likely to be emboldened and bring other suits. Some target industries have already been identified. When the results of USEPA's greenhouse gas reporting rule are collated, other industries may find themselves in the crosshairs. The time to identify insurance coverage is not when half a dozen claims have been filed in jurisdictions across the nation demanding an answer within 30 days. Climate change defendants and potential defendants should take steps now to prepare for future claims, most notably because of the risk they may lose insurance coverage for these claims if they are not reported timely. Many will rely on notice to their current insurer and that is a good strategy, so far as it goes and only if that carrier agrees to coverage. But besides one's current policy, one should also be considering prior "occurrence-based" policies, which could be triggered based on allegations of injury-causing events occurring over time. It does not require much imagination to analogize the time periods over which, for example, glaciers have melted, snowpack has become depleted, erosion has increased, and water supplies have been drawn down to other drawn-out injuries that established the "continuous trigger" rule that attached multiple policies. Some states have a bright line rule for notice. If it is not given promptly, dismissal based on late notice is a likely result. Other states are more lenient and require prejudice to the insurer. New York until recently was a no-prejudice-to-the-insurer state. But the law changed in 2009 to require the insurer to show prejudice (or the insured to show no prejudice) - but it was not retroactive. Accordingly, insureds with policies subject to New York law (which is often the case due to a choice of law provision in the policy) prior to 2009 still need to give notice promptly. Even in those states that require prejudice to be shown, one cannot know how the case law on prejudice will evolve in the context of climate change; hence prompt notice is a good idea in other states as well. Notice here is not as easy as it may sound. Unlike Superfund cases where the (alleged) responsible entity is identified by the claimant and therefore can be identified to the insurance company, carbon dioxide emission liability can fall to any fossil-fuel fired plant owned by the corporate entity, including potentially those operated by subsidiaries. Accordingly, those subsidiaries' policies may need to be tracked down and placed on notice as well. Taking liberties with Ben Franklin's adage, an ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure. Should climate change claims get the green light from the Supreme Court, policyholders would be wise to have located all of their protection ahead of time.

Carbon Dioxide | Carbon Emissions | Climate Change | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance | Supreme Court | Utilities

Looking Forward and Looking Back - Some Climate Change Response Perspectives and Predictions

December 2, 2010 07:44
by J. Wylie Donald
Another year done, another time to look back and to look forward. In the climate change space, the increasing tempo of regulation was halted, but that does not mean that there were not significant events. We catalog a few with accompanying predictions of the future:Without a doubt the big legal action this year will be the United States Supreme Court's decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, where States and public interest organizations seek to vindicate their ability to sue on a "carbon dioxide as public nuisance" theory. One should expect the Ninth Circuit to hold off an any decision in Kivalina v. ExxonMobil until after the Supremes render their decision. And climate change plaintiffs will husband their resources until the lay of the legal landscape is clear before filing any new suits. Our crystal ball, however, also hints that clarity may not be forthcoming. Justice Sotomayor has recused herself - there may be effectively no decision if the Court comes out 4-4. Hand-in-hand with climate change liability lawsuits goes climate change liability insurance coverage. That too is being litigated at an ultimate appellate venue. In Steadfast Insurance Co. v. The AES Corp., the Virginia Supreme Court will consider whether for the purposes of the duty to defend, an occurrence is alleged in Kivalina. Although Virginia is not the most popular of coverage litigation venues, that Steadfast is the first climate change coverage case ensures that the decision will be significant.While these are heady times for courts and litigators, those ready for the legislative "fix" for climate change will not find succor in 2011. Cap-and-trade advocates became quieter and quieter in the days leading up to the November 2010 mid-term elections. We win no points for our prescience when we predict that there will be no new federal legislation regulating carbon dioxide emissions in the coming year. Quieter even than domestic cap-and-trade supporters are those in favor of some international regime. COP 16 in Cancun achieved very little. It established a $100 billion Green Climate Fund, without any provisions to fund it. It did not extend the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. And China and the United States (the two largest greenhouse gas emitters) are still not part of any global climate change plan. COP 17 takes place in Durban, South Africa at the end of next year. With an American presidential race beginning, it is hard to imagine the Administration will butt heads with its Republican adversaries on anything contentious or innovative proposed at Durban. Even if legislation is going nowhere, that does not mean the administrative agencies will be quiet. The FTC Green Guides have proposed revisions to address carbon neutrality and renewable energy claims. Expect the proposals to be acted on in 2011. The SEC's guidance on climate change disclosure surfaced in February 2010. The guidance specifically requires analysis of domestic and international regulation. In light of the shift in the climate-change-regulation pendulum, it will be interesting to see if any reporting company states that it expects less restrictions, rather than more restrictions. And of course USEPA's greenhouse gas reporting rules required the first set of data to be turned in at the end of 2010, which undoubtedly will initiate further regulatory rules. Private parties will go where the money is, which will continue to be in heavily subsidized renewable programs. Will the Republican Congress recognize the market dislocations engendered by these subsidies and cut them? Or will different influences like jobs or constituents continue to make their presence felt? If the December enactment of the Tax Relief Act (which provided an extension of the 30% tax grant for renewable projects) is any guide, if a project can be supported with a tax subsidy, rather than a government payment, it will continue. And what can we say about the weather? 2010 was an above average hurricane year, but fortunately for the United States, damage was minimal. The hurricane experts at Colorado State University predict an equally busy year for 2011. Pay up those premiums. Best for the New Year!

Insurance | Climate Change | Supreme Court | Legislation | Carbon Emissions

Sinkholes and Climate Change - Leading to a Lack of Hurricane Coverage

September 21, 2010 18:24
by J. Wylie Donald
One of the things that is so intriguing about climate change is the development of things that no one is anticipating. More sophisticated thinkers call this the "law of unexpected consequences." I simply defer to Heraclitus: "expect the unexpected." So here. Today's Wall Street Journal has an intriguing article on the asymptotic rise of sinkhole claims against insurance companies. Florida's insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., has seen sinkhole claim rates double since last year. Insurance industry spokesmen and some legislators blame a rapid increase in the number of public adjusters in Florida. The public adjusters respond that they are merely enforcing policyholders' contractual rights. They further assert that the source of the claims is too-rapid development that allowed building in areas sure to develop sinkholes. Sinkhole coverage is mandated by Florida law. See F.S.A. 627.706. One insurer uses this language: "We cover sinkhole loss to your house and other permanent structures caused by sinkhole activity. We also cover the costs to: stabilize the land under and around your damaged house or other permanent structure; stabilize the house or other permanent structure; and repair the foundation, caused by sinkhole activity in accordance with the recommendations of a professional engineer approved by us and in consultation with you." You can see the room for conflict when this is juxtaposed with a typical exclusion for structural movement: "We do not cover any loss caused by the settling, cracking, shrinking, bulging, or expansion of pavements, patios, foundations, walls, floors, roofs or ceilings except loss caused by sinkhole activity or catastrophic ground coverage collapse as provided under Extra Coverages ..." It is set up as a classic battle of the experts. If the policyholder's expert is credited, a cracked foundation is caused by a sinkhole. If the insurer's expert is accepted, the cracked foundation settled and is excluded.  So what do sinkholes have to do with hurricane insurance? We have previously discussed that Citizens does not charge enough premium to cover expected hurricane losses. See climatelawyers blog of Feb. 5, 2009. Now we learn that the carrier has not charged enough premium to cover sinkhole claims either. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, Citizens paid out last year over 5 times what it collected in sinkhole premiums. So just when Florida needs its property insurance the most (because climate change is going to bring more frequent and more severe storms), Florida's insurers are even less likely to be able to pay the claims because of the mushrooming sinkhole problem. I also should comment on the attacks on public adjusters. The insurance contracts provide certain rights. A public adjuster earns no dollars for his/her client unless someone (judge, jury, arbitrator, claims handler) credits his/her argument that there is coverage. The flip side of this is that the decisionmaker is also deciding that the carrier's language does not exclude the claim. If these circumstances occur, it seems a little ostrich-like to blame the public adjusters for the fact that there are too many claims. The problem has to be in the policy language, with which public adjusters had nothing to do. The so-called problem with adjusters should not have been unexpected.  Legislators are not insurance policy draftsmen.  The threat to Citizens and Florida's other home-grown property insurers may have been less apparent.  Who would have thought that sinkholes would take away the insurance structure Florida labored mightily to build in the face of increasing storms?  Or who would have thought otherwise?  Florida's insurance paradigm is broken, whether for hurricanes or sinkholes.  Premium does not cover losses.  Until that is fixed, one can expect more problems even if the exact contours of the problems are not now known.

Climate Change | Insurance | Weather

Remember Hurricane Wilma? The Damage is Still Not Paid For

March 7, 2010 18:15
by J. Wylie Donald
There was scary news out of Florida at the end of last month. Insurers were lobbying the cabinet for an increase in catastrophe fund insurance policyholder fees. This is the surcharge Florida regulators place on every automobile and property policy to pay for the Florida Catastrophe Fund, which needs up to $710 million to pay for 2005 (sic) claims that are still coming in. The Fund managers sought to increase the current surcharge from 1% to 1.3% of premiums. The increase was rejected by the Florida cabinet, ostensibly because of concerns over fraud. Seems public adjusters in Florida are too effective and have precipitated an unbudgeted increase in payouts from the Fund. The explanation for the increase in claims and payouts is that fraud is being carried on. Cynical observers cite a different reason. Governor Crist is running for the Senate and is not going to be tagged with increasing the cost of insurance. Whatever the reason, what should really be cause for concern is that the Fund may need an additional $710 million. I have blogged repeatedly and skeptically on the beach pools and wind pools. Turns out I am not alone. Zurich Insurance Company published a White Paper last summer that makes the point far more eloquently than I did.   In The Climate Risk Challenge: the role of insurance in pricing climate-related risks, http://www.zurich.com/main/insight/introduction.htm, Zurich posits that in addressing climate change, there is a great need to engage the insurance industry's skill in managing risk. The trick is how to engage an industry whose business is protecting private assets, so that that protection furthers the public good. Zurich points out that this has been done before. Fire protection codes and vehicle safety requirements are two areas of note. Following along in that vein, climate-friendly requirements that are built into zoning and building codes, such as hurricane-proofing structures, mandating energy efficiency, and restricting construction in flood -prone areas, can be supported by insurance products, which will bring market forces into play. However, as Zurich notes, "The ability of the insurance industry to assist public policy-makers in the effective and efficient implementation of climate change policy is to a large extent dependent on [policymakers'] willingness to resist the temptation to distort markets in a manner that interferes with the role of and ability of insurers to send price signals about risk." Distortion seems rampant in Florida. In the fifth year after Hurricane Wilma, the Florida Catastrophe Fund still lacks sufficient funds to pay for those claims. Perhaps more significantly, the procedure in place to pay for those losses cannot do so. Zurich's tag-line is "Because change happenZ." I would amend that. "Because climate change is happening." Policymakers need to tap into the experts who manage the balance between risk exposure and financial sustainability. Until the Florida insurance market reflects true price signals for risk, those experts are very likely to remain sitting on the sidelines and Florida's hurricane risk effectively uninsured.

Climate Change | Flood Insurance | Insurance | Weather

Disclosure Pressure Ratchets Upward - Will D&O Policies Provide Cover?

February 16, 2010 02:42
by J. Wylie Donald
I concluded that I needed to pay more attention to climate change issues when I attended a seminar in 2005 and one of the speakers commented that inadequate climate change disclosures would not be covered under a D&O policy because of the pollution exclusion. Could it be so? The argument was deceptively simple. Carbon dioxide was a "pollutant." The inadequate disclosure "arose" out of the "release" of carbon dioxide. There is no coverage for same. Q.E.D. Thoughtful analysis, however, dispatches this canard. As we have written previously, carbon dioxide should not be classified as a pollutant. It does not irritate or contaminate: it is biologically benign except at impossibly high concentrations, and it is found in the atmosphere in billions of tons, a natural and essential constituent. And because it does not make the atmosphere impure, it is not a pollutant. But one does not even have to reach that conclusion. Any liability alleged against a director or officer for inadequate disclosure of risks from rising CO2 levels, arises from the inadequate disclosure not from the release of carbon dioxide. Cf. Owens Corning v. National Union Fire Insurance Co., No. 97-3367, 1998 WL 774109 (6th Cir. Oct. 13, 1998) (alleged inadequate disclosure of asbestos risk); Boliden Ltd. v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., Dkt. No. 05-CV-284493PD1, 2007 CanLII 11309 (Ont. Super. Ct. Apr. 3, 2007) (ore processing risks); Sealed Air v. Royal Indem. Co., 961 A.2d 1195, 404 N.J. Super. 363 (App. Div. 2008) (asbestos risk). But see National Union Fire Insurance Co. v. U.S. Liquids, Inc., 88 Fed. Appx. 725 (5th Cir. 2004) (per curiam) (pollution exclusion applies to allegations of improper disclosure of illegal toxic waste disposal). The requirements for disclosure are ratcheting upward. It started with activist shareholders requesting climate change disclosure at their companies' annual meetings. Next came the Carbon Disclosure Project, which over time has enlisted over 2000 companies in their annual reporting. See cdproject.net. In 2007, New York Attorney General Cuomo served subpoenas on certain publicly traded electric utilities and a coal company (based far from New York), seeking information on their climate change disclosures. New York has settled with three of the five companies, Xcel Energy, Dynegy and most recently with AES Corp. Dominion Resources and Peabody Energy remain in the dispute. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners weighed in with their disclosure requirements for insurance companies in 2009 (effective 2010). And now, with the publication of the SEC's recent interpretive guidance on climate change disclosures, it is only a matter of time before some investor's prescience is not rewarded and he or she or it concludes that the fault lies not in the stars, but in a corporate prospectus.   Should that come to pass, we anticipate the corporation will tender the claim to its D&O insurer for a defense. Undoubtedly the insurer will consider asserting the application of the policy's pollution exclusion. The ultimate result will depend on all the facts. One fact will be the extent and timing of disclosures. Another, however, could be that the policyholder had the pollution exclusion endorsed out its policy. That is a step the risk manager could be taking right now, regardless of what the corporate lawyers ultimately conclude about disclosure.

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change | Insurance | Greenhouse Gases

The Top 7+ Climate Change Insurance Topics for the New Year

December 31, 2009 02:38
by J. Wylie Donald
Crystal balls are preferred by some over tea leaves; others resort to reading entrails. We all seek some assistance as we peer into the future at the cusp of a new year and a new decade. I am no exception, my divining rod: an imprecise dialog with peers and the ever-probing investigation of Google. So here goes a look at coverage in a world of climate change in 2010. 1. The lead story in this area will have to be a decision in Steadfast Insurance Company v The AES Company. In July 2007 Steadfast brought suit against its insured to ascertain coverage obligations in the climate change lawsuit, Native Village of Kivalina v ExxonMobil Corp. Steadfast moved for summary judgment last March; the motion is fully briefed. A decision should be forthcoming. Regardless of how it comes out (unless there is no decision), the ruling will be significant, if only because it will be the first climate change coverage decision. 2. Will the beach pools continue to avoid disaster? Since Katrina in 2005, United States hurricane seasons have been relatively tame. After predicting an above average season last year, meteorologists had to backtrack and acknowledge a below average season. At some point, the averages will catch up and a Category 5 storm will make landfall here. When that happens we will learn whether the post-loss funding mechanisms will fly, or whether a different legislative fix (even a federal fix) will take over. 3a. New products are the name of the game. Insurance is no different. The Property and Casualty carriers have been rolling out green building coverages focused on certification, re-building upgrades, and recycling. Carbon sequestration projects have found cover. Policies covering carbon credits are less apparent. Expect more innovation, but also expect some re-tooling as the carriers respond to more and better information about what they are insuring, and what insureds want. 3b. Don't take my word on this. Dr. Evan Mills of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of the Department of Energy has annually and comprehensively assessed insurer responses to climate change. Let's hope there continues to be funding for his important work. 4. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners last March established requirements for insurers to disclose climate change risk. The first disclosures are due on May 1. If past history is any metric, the quality of the disclosures will be all over the map. One can be sure the SEC and state regulators will be paying close attention. The SEC has received numerous petitions seeking the same types of requirements for other industries. State regulators are concerned that climate change threatens the viability of insurers. 5. The Carbon Disclosure Project is on an asymptotic roll. It started slowly in 2003 but since 2006 the CDP has grown at an ever-increasing clip (2204 in 2008, up from 1449 in 2007, which is from 922 in 2006). And it has real heft behind it: "on behalf of 475 institutional investors, holding $55 trillion in assets under management and some 60 purchasing organizations such as Cadbury, PepsiCo and Walmart." The CDP reports annually on corporate climate change statements; its cutoff date for the 2009 report was February 1. Companies wishing to join the ever-increasing number of disclosing entities in 2010 will have to move smartly. (For those pondering the link to insurance, the NAIC rule accepts CDP disclosure.) 6. The climate change risk management dialog will become more sophisticated. Climate change will be a disaster for some; for others it will be a golden annuity. Assessing those risks and opportunities will be key to commercial success. As an example, the cement industry is one of the major identified sources of carbon emissions. Yet if adaptation proceeds, cement is going to be a primary element in the "armoring" of the coast. But does one build in a developing country and export the cement with accompanying political risk and transportation cost, or does one make cement where it will be used. Figuring out the successful business plan will not be simple and risk managers and their consultants will have a lot to keep track of. 7. The absolute carbon dioxide exclusion will remain only theoretical. Insurers will continue to rely on their pollution exclusions to stave off any coverage liability for carbon dioxide claims. Don't expect a different approach until the pollution exclusion gets nicked. If you've gotten this far, you deserve a holiday (I find this stuff interesting, but many do not). So take tomorrow off. Contemplate the future and then grab it. It is the only one we have. Best wishes for 2010.  

Climate Change | Insurance

McCARTER & ENGLISH CLIMATE CHANGE AND RENEWABLE ENERGY PRACTICE GROUP

The business case for the development of renewable energy projects, from biodiesel and ethanol to wind, solar, and distributed generation, is more compelling than ever as tax and regulatory incentives combine to attract investments. Emerging issues in environmental law and increasingly recognized principles of corporate social responsibility are encouraging public companies to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions, install clean energy alternatives, and invest overseas in projects under the Kyoto Protocol to respond to climate change concerns.

Click here for more information and a list of our group members.

MONTH LIST

© 2018 McCarter & English, LLP. All Rights Reserved. disclaimer
navbottom image