Virginia Supreme Court Decides First Climate Change Insurance Case

Virginia Supreme Court Decides First Climate Change Insurance Case

September 16, 2011 17:32
by J. Wylie Donald

This morning the Virginia Supreme Court decided the first climate change liability insurance coverage case:   The AES Corp. v. Steadfast Ins. Co., Record No. 100764 (attached). It held that there was no covered “occurrence” and that therefore the trial court properly dismissed the insured’s claim for coverage.

Followers of this blog are well familiar with Steadfast and the underlying Kivalina case.  For those new to this subject, this coverage case arose out of the climate change nuisance damages case, Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., CV 08-1138 SBA (N.D. Cal.), in which claimants asserted that defendants' greenhouse gas emissions resulted in warmer winters, which lead to melting of sea ice and erosion of the shoreline around their community to the point that their village was set to fall into the sea.  They brought suit against oil and gas companies, electric utilities and a coal company, seeking damages for an alleged nuisance.  In Steadfast one of the Kivalina defendants’ insurers (Steadfast), after first defending under a reservation of rights, brought a declaratory judgment action against its insured (electric utility AES), seeking to avoid coverage under its general liability policies.  Shortly thereafter Steadfast filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that there was no occurrence, and that coverage was barred by the loss-in-progress and pollution exclusions.

AES initially prevailed and defeated Steadfast’s motion.  AES then moved for summary judgment on the duty to defend and Steadfast cross-moved.  This time Steadfast gained victory.  The trial court issued a very brief opinion holding:  “Steadfast has no duty to defend AES in connection with the underlying Kivalina litigation because no 'occurrence' as defined in the policies has been alleged in the underlying Complaint.”  AES appealed.

In most jurisdictions, including Virginia, an “eight corners” rule is applied:  “only the allegations in the complaint and the provisions of the insurance policy are to be considered in deciding whether there is a duty on the part of the insurer to defend and indemnify the insured.”  Opinion at 7 (citations omitted).  Coverage under the Steadfast policies hinged on whether there was an occurrence, specifically defined to mean “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful condition.”  In Virginia the terms “occurrence” and “accident” are synonymous and an “accident” is commonly understood to mean “an event which creates an effect which is not the natural or probable consequence of the means employed and is not intended, designed, or reasonably anticipated.”  Id. at 9.

There was no dispute that AES intentionally released carbon dioxide as part of the combustion process at its power plants.  But intentional acts do not preclude coverage:  “[W]hen the alleged injury results from an unforeseen cause that is out of the ordinary expectations of a reasonable person, the injury may be covered by an occurrence policy provision.”  Id. at 10 (citing 20 Eric M. Holmes, Appleman on Insurance 2d § 129.2(I)(5) (2002 & Supp. 2009)).  However, “If a result is the natural and probable consequence of an insured’s intentional act, it is not an accident” and coverage will be barred.  Id. at 9. 

The Court summarized the rule it would apply:

Thus, resolution of the issue of whether Kivalina’s Complaint alleges an occurrence covered by the policies turns on whether the Complaint can be construed as alleging that Kivalina’s injuries, at least in the alternative, resulted from unforeseen consequences that a reasonable person would not have expected to result from AES’s deliberate act of emitting carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases.  Id. at 10-11.

Notwithstanding that the Kivalina plaintiffs specifically alleged negligence, and that AES adduced evidence that the Kivalina plaintiffs were arguing on appeal before the Ninth Circuit that their claim sounded in negligence, the Court followed strict adherence to the eight-corners rule:

Kivalina plainly alleges that AES intentionally released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a regular part of its energy-producing activities. Kivalina also alleges that there is a clear scientific consensus that the natural and probable consequence of such emissions is global warming and damages such as Kivalina suffered. Whether or not AES’s intentional act constitutes negligence, the natural and probable consequence of that intentional act is not an accident under Virginia law.  Id. at 12.

Further, “[e]ven if AES were negligent and did not intend to cause the damage that occurred, the gravamen of Kivalina’s nuisance claim is that the damages it sustained were the natural and probable consequences of AES’s intentional emissions.”  Id. at 13.  In sum, “If an insured knew or should have known that certain results would follow from his acts or omissions, there is no 'occurrence' within the meaning of a comprehensive general liability policy.”  Thus, the trial court was affirmed.

As noted at the outset, this is the first skirmish of what is certain to be a protracted battle between insurers and insureds.  There are 50 other jurisdictions (including the District of Columbia) and this is only one issue based on one complaint and one insurer's policy language.  There is a long way to go before we will have clarity here.

Post scriptum:  Many will recall that Steadfast argued in its papers and before the Court that the pollution exclusion also barred coverage; AES responded that it had not been properly raised.  The Court did not even address the subject, apparently feeling that it was enough to cite to AES's grounds for appeal, which did not include the pollution exclusion.  So even in Virginia, there are still coverage battles to be fought.

AES Corp. v. Steadfast Ins. Co., No. 100764, slip op. (Va. Sept. 16, 2011).pdf (64.69 kb)

Carbon Dioxide | Climate Change Litigation | Insurance

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