For food companies (and other businesses), a dangerous and deadly flu pandemic (e.g., H1N1) can be a business disaster. Adding insult to injury is personal injury litigation and the accompanying insurance coverage nightmares that follow.
What Are the Personal Injury Litigation Risks?
For restaurants, airlines, cruiselines, supermarkets, hospitals, schools, and other institutions, risk comes from exposure if customers can link their illness with employee or staff illnesses. While proof of causation will be a hurdle for these plaintiffs, employers without clear and enforced pandemic policies (e.g., policies aimed at limited transmission and keeping sick workers home) are at risk. Large-scale deaths of healthy children and adults will raise the stakes enough to garner attention from plaintiffs’ lawyers and motivate lawsuits (whether merited or not).
While workers’ compensation statutes generally shield employers from suits by their employees (both alive and deceased), the same bar may not apply to contract employees or customers. Both may have the right to sue if they can link exposure to illness.
Will Personal Injury Claims Be Covered by CGL Coverage?
Generally, third-party claims for bodily injury against a company should be covered by Commercial General Liability (CGL) coverage. Yet coverages, exclusions, and endorsements should be read carefully. With greater frequency, insurers are including relevant (and harsh) language excluding claims related to infectious disease. For example, many policies, especially those issued to food companies, include exclusions for “organic pathogens,” which could be construed by insurers to include flu viruses.
Insureds should also evaluate whether limits and excess coverages are sufficient. Increasing limits of liability are relatively inexpensive and should be considered. It’s not difficult to imagine claims exceeding $100 million if multiple deaths of healthy individuals are involved.
Will Lost Business and/or Lost Profits Be Covered by Business Interruption Coverage?
Depending on the facts, it may be possible for a swine flu pandemic to give rise to business interruption coverage. Such coverage typically is purchased by businesses as part of their property insurance policies, in the form of a rider or endorsement or an optional additional coverage. Business interruption coverage is designed to protect businesses from losses that they may suffer unexpectedly due to unavoidable interruptions in their daily operations.
Business interruption coverage may apply in a variety of circumstances, such as a forced shut-down, or a substantial impairment in access to, a business’ physical plant or warehouses. Recent, infamous examples of events giving rise to such business interruptions are the events of September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in Florida.
In most property policies, business interruption coverage is only triggered when the site suffers property damage. Physical damage, however, can include contamination of equipment. Moreover, some policies, particularly those written for policyholders in the hospitality industry, do provide coverage for losses stemming from infectious disease without requiring physical damage to premises. Further, civil authority coverage, which is triggered when authorities shut off access to an area in which a business is located, can be triggered without physical damage to the policyholder’s premises.
On the brink of a season during which some predict a possible dangerous pandemic, now is an opportune time for any company to gather its insurance coverage team (lawyers, risk managers, and brokers) to review and mitigate exposures.