Tuesday, March 30, 2021
As a teaser to a forthcoming article I coauthored with two of my students (who co-presented with me) for the Business Law Prof Blog symposium back in the fall, I offer a short excerpt on business interruption insurance litigation resulting from governmental actions forcing business closures as a result of the pandemic, focusing on a recently decided Tennessee case.
In general, business lawyers got inventive in bringing legal claims of many kinds. A federal district court case recently decided in Tennessee, Nashville Underground, LLC v. AMCO Insurance Company, No. 3:20-cv-00426 (M.D. Tennessee, March 4, 2021), offers a notable example involving the interpretations of a business interruption insurance policy. The plaintiff in the action, a Nashville bar, restaurant, and entertainment venue, claimed coverage under the food contamination endorsement in its business interruption insurance policy for the damages suffered when it was forced to close its doors by governmental orders issued in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The insurer denied coverage. The court held for the defendant insurer on its motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, finding the contract language unambiguous. The court’s conclusion in its opinion noted sympathy, in spite of the outcome.
Like many Americans, the undersigned can sympathize with Plaintiff and so many of our other small to medium-sized businesses that seem to have borne much of the brunt of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. One could understand if Plaintiff (or anyone else) lamented that it simply is not right that this should be the case. But it also is not right, or lawful, for a business's insurer to be on the hook for coverage it simply did not contractually commit to provide. Presumably like a myriad of other enterprises throughout this nation, Plaintiff in retrospect perhaps would have bargained for broader coverage but simply did not foresee such need before the unprecedented pandemic conditions arose in 2020. Accordingly, Plaintiff was unfortunately left without the coverage it now asks this Court to find in an insurance policy that simply does not provide it.
Nashville Underground, supra. Sympathy notwithstanding, cases of this kind are decided on the basis of specific contract language. Although overall insurers tend to be winning in these contract interpretation battles, insureds are prevailing in some cases, at least in pretrial and summary judgment motion battles. See, e.g., Kenneth M. Gorenberg & Scott N. Godes, Update on Business Interruption Insurance Claims for COVID-19 Losses, NAT’L L. REV. (Oct. 29, 2020), https://www.natlawreview.com/article/update-business-interruption-insurance-claims-covid-19-losses; Richard D. Porotsky Jr., Recent Federal Cases in the N.D. Ohio Split on COVID-19 Business Interruption Insurance Coverage, NAT’L L. REV. (Jan. 26, 2021), https://www.natlawreview.com/article/recent-federal-cases-nd-ohio-split-covid-19-business-interruption-insurance-coverage; Jim Sams, Judge Rules in Favor of 3 Policyholders With COVID-19 Claims in Consolidated Case, CLAIMS J. (Feb. 21. 2021), https://www.claimsjournal.com/news/national/2021/02/24/302197.htm.
The opinions in these cases constitute an interesting emergent body of decisional law relevant to contract and insurance law and practice. Along with litigation relating to, e.g., force majeure and material adverse change/effect, the legal actions interpreting language in business interruption insurance contracts are bound to offer important lessons and tips for legal counsel and their clients--a legacy likely to affect practice and litigation for many years to come.
The article from which the above quoted text (reformatted for posting here) comes, Business Law and Lawyering in the Wake of COVID-19, is scheduled for publication later this spring in Transactions: Tennessee Journal of Business Law. I will promote the article here once the final version is available and has been posted to SSRN. In the meantime, you have a a short preview of one part of the article in this post!