Bill Marler posted on his blog recently a complaint for declaratory relief filed by an insurer for Peanut Corporation of America (“PCA”). Mr. Marler comments, “Frankly, I read this suit several times and still do not see what the fight is about.” For those who represent commercial insureds in pursuing coverage from their insurers, the suit is no surprise. The suit is likely a function of the fairly limited insurance limits available to PCA, PCA’s tender of both bodily injury and recall expense related claims, possible exclusion for organic pathogens and/or allegations of intentional acts by PCA.

The complaint filed by PCA’s carrier, Hartford Casualty Insurance Company, alleges that PCA had at the time of the outbreak a $1 million primary liability insurance policy and $10 million umbrella insurance policy. Given the high number of probable personal injury claims (some of which will involve wrongful death) and the broad scope of products affected by the recall, claims will far exceed limits available to PCA under the Hartford policies. This outbreak demonstrates why any food manufacturer or seller should carefully consider whether its insurance limits are sufficient. A $10 million policy might have seemed to PCA like a great deal of coverage prior to the outbreak; today, the prevailing perception is that it is totally inadequate.

The complaint also alleges that the Hartford policies included “terms, conditions, exclusions, and limitations including but not limited to those pertaining to . . . coverage for claims arising out of the presence, suspected presence, or exposure to, among other things, bacteria.” The policies are not attached to the complaint. However, the allegation suggests that the Hartford policy might have included an organic pathogens exclusion. If the policy includes such an exclusion, PCA may be without coverage for any claims related to the Salmonella outbreak. The organic pathogens exclusion may exclude any claim for bacterial contamination of food products. As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, every food manufacturer should review its coverage to ensure that its policy does not include an organic pathogens exclusion.

Finally, the quick filing of a declaratory relief complaint by Hartford illustrates why a food seller needs to engage an experienced insurance coverage counsel immediately. Coverage counsel can assist in developing a strategy to pursue and preserve available insurance. Also, in situations such as PCA’s, all communications with insurers should be managed by coverage counsel. From the outset, communications with insurers are critical because they are likely to become relevant to the inevitable coverage disputes with the carriers.