From High Within the Ivory Tower, the Tenth Circuit Decides That a Third-Party Liability Policy Doesn’t Cover Third-Party Environmental Liabilities

Posted on October 9, 2017 by Thomas Hnasko

In an unpublished decision in Taos Ski Valley, Inc. v. Nova Casualty Co., the Tenth Circuit decided the so-called “owned or occupied property” exclusion in a third-party comprehensive general liability (“CGL”) policy barred coverage for the third-party damage claims asserted by the New Mexico Environment Department against Taos Ski Valley (“TSV”) because the petroleum-product contamination, through the expedient efforts of TSV, was successfully confined to the boundaries of property occupied by TSV and did not impact groundwater, a third-party resource owned by the State of New Mexico.  In so doing, the Court reasoned language added to the owned or occupied property exclusion, which barred coverage for damage to the insured’s property “for any reason,” was sufficient to disclaim coverage.

The Tenth Circuit was not persuaded by the reasoning of Judge Pozner and others that, under a CGL policy, the location of the damage is immaterial; rather, it matters only that the damage caused an immediate third-party liability instead of damage only to the insured’s first-party property interests.  Moreover, the Court was not persuaded by the argument that environmental practitioners can now advise their clients to defer environmental clean-ups until property owned by the public (as a third party), i.e., the groundwater aquifer, is damaged.  The Court summarily concluded that, in such an event, the policy would foreclose coverage on another basis, because the damage to the groundwater would be expected and intended by the insured.  Certainly any environmental practitioner knows this is pure folly.  Simply instructing an environmental consultant to schedule the groundwater sampling on Thursday, as opposed to Tuesday, might well do the trick to ensure publicly-owned water resources, as opposed to just soil, suffer environmental harm and trigger coverage under the CGL policy.  More importantly, it is unfortunate the Court actually believes the New Mexico Supreme Court, as a matter of state law, would sanction a result encouraging the pollution of our resources, instead of prompt environmental clean-ups, in order to secure insurance coverage.  Claims of environmental contamination, after all, constitute damage to the public, as a third party, whether damage occurs within or outside of the boundaries of property owned or occupied by the insured.

Raining On The Cities’ Parades

Posted on July 22, 2014 by Charles F. Becker

Every city of any size wants development.  Some prefer commercial over residential, but they share the common belief that growing is the best way to survive.  The problem that arises, however, is nature. 

Development is, necessarily, hard surfaces.  It is rooftops, streets and driveways.  In other words, it is impervious area.  When rain hits the impervious area, it must be diverted, collected and pushed downstream.  While attempts can be made to allow it to soak into the ground, the reality is that there is simply no way to make up for all of the new impervious area without a great deal of planning, preparation and expense. 

Most attorneys who practice in the area of water regulation have received a call from a business or homeowner that is located at the “bottom of the hill.”  These entities are the ones who are feeling the effects of the urban development.  They have noticed that over the past five or ten years, they have been receiving more and more water to the point that they are now flooding on a routine basis.  They ask the obvious question:  Who is at fault?  Who can pay me for the destroyed basement, the flooded parking lot or the months of work stoppage while repairs are made?

In most states, riparian law prohibits the upstream neighbor from altering the water flow from his/her property in a way that adversely affects the next door neighbor.   But that does not provide a solution when it is the cumulative effect of many upstream neighbors, all of which have been issued permits from the city, that is the root of the problem.

As was recently reported, the stormwater runoff question was called in a recent series of class action cases filed in Illinois by an unlikely plaintiff, the Illinois Farmers Insurance Company.  In the suits, the insurance carrier alleged that 200 cities in Illinois had negligently maintained the stormwater system, had failed to remedy a known dangerous condition and had undertaken an unlawful “taking” in that the government had appropriated the properties of others to use as diversion and retention basins.  The carrier sought to recover amounts it had paid out under flood claims made by their insureds.

Interestingly, about fifty days after filing, Farmers Insurance filed a notice to dismiss the action.  The carrier said that it had successfully brought important issues to the attention of the respective cities and counties and that it hoped to continue a constructive conversation with the cities to build stronger, safer communities.  As one would expect, the spokesman for the cities believed that the dismissal was because the carrier recognized it did not have sufficient grounds for the suit. 

There are some things that local governments are particularly suited to do: manage solid waste, ensure the timely delivery of electricity and coordinate the development and maintenance of streets, for example.  These are matters that potentially affect everyone within the city limits and for which everyone must pay.  There is no better example of this than addressing stormwater that lands on every property in the city.  Having a system in place that safely carries the stormwater away from buildings cannot be done by any single landowner.  And regulating the bigger picture -- building the necessary stormwater infrastructure while encouraging development -- is uniquely within the purview of the city.

It would appear that the proverbial warning shot has been fired across the bow.  If cities are going to encourage activity that significantly exacerbates the stormwater problem, they may also be charged with protecting those that are affected by the fallout from those activities.  For this problem, time, without action, is only going to make the problem worse and the solution more expensive. And counting on the next case being voluntarily dismissed is a lot like hoping the rain won’t fall.      

Climate Change Litigation – Will Property Insurers Take the Lead?

Posted on April 24, 2014 by Ralph Child

Common law litigation seeking relief from petrochemical companies for causing climate change has been much touted but little successful.

The insurance industry has been warning of huge coming losses due to climate change, but has not taken aggressive action to force change.

Until now? 

In a lawsuit filed in Illinois state court on April 16, 2014, some property insurers sued the City of Chicago and a host of regional and municipal water managers for failure to provide adequate stormwater storage.  The class action suit alleges that the plaintiffs’ insureds would not have suffered so much flood damage from a 2013 storm had the defendants exercised better planning and construction to deal with foreseeable storms. 

Notably, the plaintiff insurers rely heavily on the 2008 Chicago Climate Action Plan.  The plan recognized that climate change would cause increased amounts, durations and intensities of rainfall.  Plaintiffs allege that despite the foreseen problem and having had adequate time and opportunity, the defendants failed to make the recommended and necessary improvements, leading to the injuries to the insureds’ properties.

Certainly this suit faces many challenges.  Courts are slow to override state and local governments’ complicated budgeting choices.  Moreover, courts may be ill-equipped to oversee projects such as Chicago’s Deep Tunnel Project, which was commissioned in the 1970s to address metropolitan flooding, stormwater and sewage.  After more than $3 billion so far, itwill not be completed until at least 2029.

Also, query whether such litigation will help or hurt state and local efforts to adapt to climate change.  It could deter honest forecasting of what it will take.

Still, this lawsuit could augur a new wave of common law climate change litigation – a category involving well-funded plaintiffs with provable arguments for proximate cause of real damages.

The Frankenstorm Triple Whammy

Posted on November 12, 2012 by Robert M Olian

Those environmental lawyers who had a two- or three-day “vacation” due to Hurricane Sandy now return to the office to face a workload that will in many cases be trebled. First, there’s the work you didn’t get to when your office was closed and now has to be finished post-haste. Second, there’s the work that you would have been doing the next few days had there been no hurricane. And third, there’s the urgent work that you now have to help your clients assess new issues that are present precisely because of the storm.

Wind and water mobilize even structures, equipment and materials that were always meant to be stationary. Storage tanks, waste ponds, drums, hazardous materials and other previously contained environmental hazards have now been released, flooded, or overtopped, often releasing reportable quantities of material. Clients will need to quickly assess the nature and magnitude of releases at and from their facilities to determine their environmental obligations.

The prudent environmental lawyer will immediately begin working with clients to determine whether there are spills and releases that must be reported to federal, state and local environmental agencies. Potential liabilities may depend upon whether under the applicable laws “Act of God” is or is not a defense.  Surprisingly, a major hurricane is not, in the eyes (pun intended) of some agencies interpreting some statutes, an Act of God. Clients also need to verify that their pollution control systems – wastewater treatment, air pollution, etc. – are functioning correctly post-storm, even if there were no reportable releases during the storm.

Clients are undoubtedly attuned to the need to submit insurance claims for business interruption and damage to their own property, but now is a good time to begin surveying what kinds of claims might be coming from neighbors and others damaged by releases from the client’s facility. This is particularly so given that we are nearing year-end and many policies no longer have “tails” for notices of claims received after the policy year has run.

Managing the Legal Risks of Green Buildings

Posted on August 23, 2010 by Joseph Manko

As with “green washing” of products, which are subject to existing product liability law, there is an emerging area of law regarding liability for claims that a building marketed as “green” or alleged to achieve the desired platinum, gold, silver or standard Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has failed to do so.

As the LEED requirements and techniques for sustainable development become better understood and more widely adapted, more and more developers are seeking to build “green.” To the extent that the construction costs permit a manageable return on investment (ROI) and the specifications and requirements for such development are clearly spelled out in the various contractual documents, including especially the agreement with architects, we will likely see more and more claims that the resultant buildings are “green.”

Although some theories of liability will track areas in construction law, e.g., deficiencies in design, construction or installation, green buildings claims will face an additional layer of risk. Without such statutory coverage, cf strict product liability, today’s bases for liability may include breach of contract, tort, fraud and false advertising claims.

For example, in the Maryland case of Shaw Development v. Southern Builders, which was settled without an opinion, the loss of a tax credit based upon compliance with a LEED Silver certification level led to a claim of liability.

The best way to mitigate these risks is to ensure that all contractual documents are clear and consistent, project management is assured, information disclosures are accurate, and finally that insurance coverage, where available, is provided. With regard to documents, AIA form contract B214-2007 has been developed to provide some model contractual language; more than forty insurance carriers are now underwriting green building liability; and in many law firms, some of their attorneys and other technical people have become LEED accredited.

This is an area that will continue to develop as more and more green buildings are constructed. For more in-depth information on potential liability and tips to mitigate claims, see the Harvard Law School Environmental Law & Policy Clinic White Paper, “The Green Building Revolution: Addressing and Managing Legal Risks and Liabilities”.

Managing the Legal Risks of Green Buildings

Posted on August 23, 2010 by Joseph Manko

As with “green washing” of products, which are subject to existing product liability law, there is an emerging area of law regarding liability for claims that a building marketed as “green” or alleged to achieve the desired platinum, gold, silver or standard Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification has failed to do so.

As the LEED requirements and techniques for sustainable development become better understood and more widely adapted, more and more developers are seeking to build “green.” To the extent that the construction costs permit a manageable return on investment (ROI) and the specifications and requirements for such development are clearly spelled out in the various contractual documents, including especially the agreement with architects, we will likely see more and more claims that the resultant buildings are “green.”

Although some theories of liability will track areas in construction law, e.g., deficiencies in design, construction or installation, green buildings claims will face an additional layer of risk. Without such statutory coverage, cf strict product liability, today’s bases for liability may include breach of contract, tort, fraud and false advertising claims.

For example, in the Maryland case of Shaw Development v. Southern Builders, which was settled without an opinion, the loss of a tax credit based upon compliance with a LEED Silver certification level led to a claim of liability.

The best way to mitigate these risks is to ensure that all contractual documents are clear and consistent, project management is assured, information disclosures are accurate, and finally that insurance coverage, where available, is provided. With regard to documents, AIA form contract B214-2007 has been developed to provide some model contractual language; more than forty insurance carriers are now underwriting green building liability; and in many law firms, some of their attorneys and other technical people have become LEED accredited.

This is an area that will continue to develop as more and more green buildings are constructed. For more in-depth information on potential liability and tips to mitigate claims, see the Harvard Law School Environmental Law & Policy Clinic White Paper, “The Green Building Revolution: Addressing and Managing Legal Risks and Liabilities”.