By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law
On September 3, 2020, a Florida federal judge dismissed a suit for business interruption insurance payments by a Florida dentist. The dentist claimed he sustained damages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and related civil authority shutdowns of dental services. The dismissal freed Allied Insurance Company of America from having to pay the dentist’s for COVID-19 related losses, holding that the policy’s “virus exclusion” barred coverage of the insurance claim made.
Insurance Coverage for COVID-19 Related Losses.
The dentist sued his insurance carrier for damages that he argued were “caused by or result[ing] from a Covered Cause of Loss.” The causes of the alleged loss, he maintained, included the COVID-19 virus’s impact on his dental practice and the Florida governor’s emergency declaration that limited dental services during a period of time. Specifically, he claimed that he incurred costs to decontaminate his dental office and lost valuable income because of the governor’s dental services limitation. The dentist alleged that Allied breached the insurance contract by denying coverage in April.
Allied’s insurance policy provides coverage “for direct physical loss or damage to covered property at the [plaintiff’s] premises” that is “caused by or result[s] from any Covered Cause of Loss.” Allied argued that there was no direct physical loss or damage to covered property at the clinic due to appointment cancellations or the closure of the dental practice.
Dismissal of the Law Suit.
U.S. District Court Judge John Badalamenti, for the Middle District of Florida, dismissed the case. He found that the dental practice’s loss or damage asserted was “not due to a covered cause of loss.” More importantly, he found that the policy contained an exclusion for loss or damage caused “directly or indirectly,” by “[a]ny virus, bacterium or other microorganisms that induces or is capable of inducing physical distress, illness or disease.”
According to the judge’s order, in order for the insurer to provide coverage, losses from business suspension must be caused by direct physical loss or damage. He ruled that the dentist failed to demonstrate what the policy required in order to be a covered loss. To read the order in full, click here.
With such a specific exclusion as this policy contained, it was difficult for the judge in the case to rule any other way.
Litigation on Whether Insurance Policies Should Cover Losses Due to Coronavirus Closures.
This recent Florida dismissal is another in a string of cases where insurers have prevailed in Coronavirus business loss cases, because of similar exclusions in their policies. In a similar case, a Michigan federal judge sided with the insurance company saying it didn’t have to cover a chiropractic office’s COVID-19 claimed losses. Like the case above, the judge said the business failed to allege physical loss and, therefore, the policy’s virus exclusion barred coverage. Click here to read the judge’s order in this case.
According to insurance experts and regulators, most businesses and professionals will probably find it difficult to obtain an insurance payout because of policy changes made after the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. SARS, which infected 8,000 people, led to millions of dollars in business-interruption insurance claims. As a result, many insurers added exclusions to standard commercial policies for virus losses. The added policy language potentially allows insurance companies to avoid hundreds of billions of dollars in business-interruption claims because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since a wide-scale virus outbreak is such a rare event, most policy purchasers overlooked this exception. There certainly wasn’t any concerted effort to make insureds aware of the exclusion nor to offer them the opportunity to purchase specific virus outbreak insurance coverage.
A global pandemic presents unique problems for insurance companies. After the SARS outbreak at the beginning of this millennium, many insurance companies realized they would not be able to cover such a broad-scale event causing massive losses. Such an event could have damages greater than those sustained in the largest hurricane to strike the U.S. The insurance industry argued to state regulators that such policy exclusions were necessary, considering the overwhelming number of claims that might arise from a single disease outbreak.
This foresight on the part of the insurance companies saved their shareholders billions, if not trillions, of dollars. Unfortunately business and professionals have had to shoulder the losses.
So, it begs the question: Did insurers actually know the potential damage a viral pandemic could wreak on businesses and, therefore, purposefully exclude coverage? Disputes over the precise wording of business insurance policies will most likely continue to generate court battles like those discussed above.
Read my prior blog on this subject to learn more.
Recommendation for the Future.
There are several options that businesses and state insurance regulators should consider to try to prevent such massive losses from going uncompensated in the future.
First would be to create and provide virus damage insurance similar to that provided for flood insurance by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The biggest problem would be that losses could easily exceed the largest hurricane that one could imagine. However, the NFIP has shown this type of plan works.
Second would be similar programs provided at the state level. At the present time, many states, have captive insurance companies to fund losses from wind damage caused by storms. In Florida, the Citizens Property Insurance Corporation (CPIC) provides such coverage.
The biggest problem I see with both of the above is that short-sighted and selfish people don’t want to purchase such insurance and, thereby, make it less expensive for all involved. They figure that the government will bail them out anyway in such an event, so why should they pay. Therefore, either making it paid for completely with taxpayer money or a requirement of obtaining a business license or professional license or some combination, may be a way to finance it.
Creating a trust fund with assessments to employers and employees, similar to what is currently done for social security, would be another option. Creating a large trust fund that could cover such tragic events might work best. However, this would have to be made “raider safe” so that Congress does not come back and raid these funds and use them for other purposes like it has done to the United States Postal Service (USPS).
At the very least, some type of universal virus pandemic business loss insurance should be mandated by law or, at least, partially funded by the government. Making it mandatory means making it cheaper and making it work.
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Zhang, Daphne. “Fla. Dentist’s Bid For COVID-19 Loss Coverage Axed.” Law360. (September 3, 2020). Web.
Zhang, Daphne. “State Farm Needn’t Cover Chiropractor’s COVID-19 Losses.” Law360. (September 3, 2020). Web.
Frankel, Todd. “Insurers knew the damage a viral pandemic could wreak on businesses. So they excluded coverage.” The Washington Post. (April 2, 2020). Web.
About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law; he is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave. Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.
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