NO COVID-19 BUSINESS LOSS COVERAGE DUE; NO BAD FAITH FOR DENIAL OF COVERAGE OR FAILURE TO INVESTIGATE (Philadelphia Federal)

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These two Covid-19 coverage cases ended in summary judgments against the insureds on their breach of contract and statutory bad faith claims.  Eastern District Judge Kenney decided both cases last Thursday (1/14/2021).

Case 1: Clear Hearing Solutions v. Continental Casualty

Covid-19 Business Coverage Issues

In Clear Hearing Solutions, the insured had two all-risk policies.  Plaintiffs were Pennsylvania entities, but they had hearing service stores closed in Maryland and North Carolina due to government shutdowns.  The insureds alleged they were entitled to “Business Income coverage, Extra Expense Coverage, Extended Business Income coverage, and Civil Authority coverage,” but the carrier denied coverage.

Judge Kenney observed that direct physical loss of property or damage to property were essential to all these coverages.  He followed the principles that “[t]he criteria for physical loss caused by a source unnoticeable to the naked eye is thus whether the functionality of the…property was nearly eliminated or destroyed, or whether the[ ] property was made useless or uninhabitable by that source.” (internal quotation marks omitted) The mere presence of the contaminating source material, however, “or the general threat of future damage from that presence, lacks the distinct and demonstrable character necessary for first-party insurance coverage.”

Judge Kenney states:

The Court agrees with and adopts the conclusion reached by another Court in this district. In 4431, Inc. et al v. Cincinnati Ins. Cos., the Court concluded that, “under Pennsylvania law, for Plaintiffs to assert an economic loss resulting from their inability to operate their premises as intended within the coverage of the Policy’s ‘physical loss’ provision, the loss and the bar to operation from which it results must bear a causal relationship to some physical condition of the premises.” No. 5:20-cv-04396, 2020 WL 7075318, at *11 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 3, 2020) (emphasis in original). There must also be an “element correlating to [the] extent of operational utility – i.e., a premises must be uninhabitable and unusable, or nearly as such.” Id; see also Brian Handel D.M.D. v. Allstate Ins. Co., No. 20-3198, 2020 WL 6545893 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 6, 2020) (finding Port Authority and Hardinger preclude a finding of “direct physical loss of or damage to” property where it remained inhabitable and usable, albeit in limited ways). In sum, while structural damage is not required to show “direct physical loss of” property, the source that destroys the property’s utility must have something to do with the physical condition of the premises.

The Clear Hearing insureds conceded there was no Covid-19 on the premises, and their losses resulted from government directed business closures.  “Because Clear Hearing expressly denies the existence of anything affecting the physical condition of its premises, its losses are a mere loss of use untethered to the physical condition of the property itself. Reading ‘direct physical loss of or damage to property’ to contemplate mere loss of use is not a reasonable interpretation because it renders two other Policy provisions superfluous or nonsensical.”

Judge Kenney then goes into a more detailed analysis as to why there is no covered physical damage or property loss from Covid-19, which are discussed in the opinion at length.

He further observes that simply because the policy lacks a virus exclusion, this does not create coverage by implication. “But ‘[a] loss which does not properly fall within the coverage clause cannot be regarded as covered thereby merely because it is not within any of the specific exceptions….’ And it is at least plausible that the physical manifestation of some type of virus could cause covered losses. That situation is just not present here.”

Judge Kenney also finds that the Maryland and North Carolina “government orders cannot constitute a covered cause of loss under either the Business Income and Extra Expense coverages or the Civil Authority Coverage provisions.”  Further, there was no genuine factual issue “as to whether the government orders were issued due to physical loss of or damage to nearby property,” and the insured could not show access to the premises was prohibited entirely for all purposes by these government orders.

Bad Faith Issues

[Note: We have observed numerous times over the years there is a strong argument that cognizable statutory bad faith claims in Pennsylvania require that the insured must have be denied an actual benefit, i.e., a payment of first party damages due or a refusal to defend and indemnify against third party claims due.  Thus, as repeated on this blog ad naseum, there is a genuine issue as to whether an independent statutory bad faith claim for poor investigation practices is cognizable when no coverage is otherwise due under a policy. For example, see this post from January 2020, this post from August 2020, and this post from earlier in August 2020.]

The Clear Hearing opinion states that statutory bad faith is an independent cause of action from a breach of contract action. If the statutory bad faith claim, however, “is premised solely on the denial of coverage, the claim must necessarily fail if a court finds that no coverage exists.” Judge Kenney adds, “[o]n the other hand, ‘if bad faith is asserted as to conduct beyond a denial of coverage, the bad faith claim is actionable as to that conduct regardless of whether the contract claim survives.’” Further, “[t]hat distinction has been accepted when, for example, an insured claims the insurer investigated his claim in bad faith in addition to a bad-faith denial of coverage.”

[Note: The legal support for these propositions goes back, in part, to the Third Circuit’s unpublished 2007 Gallatin Fuels decision, in which the court found bad faith was still possible even though there was not even a policy in effect at the time of the incident.  Here is a link to an article addressing the logic in Gallatin Fuels, and the effect the Pennsylvania 2007 Supreme Court decision in Toy v. Metropolitan Life should have had on Gallatin Fuels reasoning and authority, had the Gallatin Fuels Court looked to Toy, which was decided earlier in 2007.]

The bulk of Clear Hearing’s bad faith claims were based on coverage denials, and these claims were readily dismissed because no coverage was ever due. Judge Kenney then goes on to address the claim handling based bad faith arguments, accepting the possibility that statutory bad faith might still exist even when no coverage is due and no benefit has actually been denied.

Clear Hearing argued that there was bad faith based on the claim handling because Continental immediately denied the claim and did not conduct any investigation, while further failing to address or acknowledge the insureds’ interpretation of the policy language on direct physical loss.  Rather, Continental relied “on case law providing a restrictive interpretation of the term direct physical loss to deny its claim as part of a policy to limit the company’s losses during the pandemic.” (internal quotation marks omitted).

Judge Kenney rejected this argument:

To the extent that these allegations may be construed to extend beyond bad faith in the denial itself to bad faith in the investigatory process or process of denial, Clear Hearing has not met its burden. In the context of a claim for coverage based solely on government closure orders, and on Civil Authority orders where nearby property has not suffered direct physical loss of or damage to property and access to plaintiff’s property has not been prohibited, there is nothing to investigate: coverage does not exist on the face of that claim. Therefore, Clear Hearing has not shown bad faith in Continental’s lack of investigation or by denying Clear Hearing’s claim “in light of the current context of mass denials of COVID-19 related business interruption claims.” Discovery on this issue would not change that conclusion. Nor does Continental’s purported reliance on caselaw that this Court concludes correctly interprets “direct physical loss of or damage to” with respect to Clear Hearing’s claims indicate bad faith. Accordingly, Clear Hearing has not shown its entitlement to damages on its bad faith claim or an existence of a dispute of material fact as to Continental’s bad faith.

Case 2: Ultimate Hearing Solutions v. Twin City Fire Insurance

Plaintiffs were Pennsylvania entities with businesses located in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, which were subject to government closure orders due to Covid-19.  They likewise had all-risk policies, but with a different insurer than the Clear Hearing plaintiffs.  The Ultimate Hearing plaintiffs were represented by the same counsel as in the Clear Hearing case. These plaintiffs brought similar breach of contract and bad faith claims.

On the coverage, Judge Kenney applied the same reasoning found in Clear Hearing to conclude there was no covered direct physical loss or damage to property.

There were two differences, however, between the Ultimate Hearing and Clear Hearing all-risk policies. The Ultimate Healing policies included (1) limited coverage for fungi, wet rot, dry rot, bacteria, and viruses; and (2) a virus exclusion.

In rejecting limited virus coverage, Judge Kenney stated, “the Limited Virus Coverage clearly states that the Policy only covers ‘Direct physical loss or direct physical damage to Covered Property caused by … virus.’ Plaintiffs did not allege that the coronavirus was present at any of their insured properties. They also have not shown, as discussed above, physical loss or damage to their properties.”

Judge Kenney further rejected the argument that the limited virus coverage was illusory, because “Plaintiffs fail to acknowledge that this Limited Virus Coverage provision also applies to fungi, wet rot, dry rot, and bacteria, not just viruses. While it may be difficult to think of a hypothetical situation where a virus causes physical damage to a property, it is not difficult to imagine that wet rot, dry rot or fungi can cause damage that would satisfy the ‘direct physical loss or direct physical damage’ requirement. Further, while it may be difficult to imagine, Defendants did in fact identify a case where insured property was damaged due to a virus caused by a Covered Cause of Loss.”

Judge Kenney also found the virus exclusion precluded coverage.

The bad faith arguments were similar to those made in Clear Hearing, but without reference to the insurer’s improperly relying on caselaw to deny coverage. Rather, the argument was phrased as a refusal to consider the insureds reasonable interpretation of the policy language concerning direct physical loss.

Judge Kenney rejected the bad faith claim handling argument, stating as in Clear Hearing:

In the context of a claim for coverage based solely on the Closure Orders where there are no claims that the insured property or nearby property has been physically damaged and access to Plaintiffs’ property has not been entirely prohibited, there is nothing to investigate: coverage does not exist on the face of that claim. Therefore, Ultimate Hearing Solutions has not shown bad faith in Twin City’s lack of investigation or by denying Ultimate Hearing Solutions’ claim “in light of the current context of mass denials of COVID-19 related business interruption claims.” Discovery on this issue would not change that conclusion. Accordingly, Ultimate Hearing Solutions has not shown its entitlement to damages on its bad faith claim or an existence of a dispute of material fact as to Twin City’s bad faith.

Date of Decision:  January 14, 2021

Clear Hearing Solutions, LLC v. Continental Casualty Co., U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. 20-3454, 2021 WL 131283 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 14, 2021) (Kenney, J.)

Ultimate Hearing Solutions II, LLC v. Twin City Fire Insurance Company, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania No. 20-2401, 2021 WL 131556 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 14, 2021) (Kenney, J.)

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