The Emerging Tort Storm
Is climate change the next mass tort? A growing number of experts predict it could be, particularly after the ambiguity of a recent large case settlement opened the door for potential mass litigation.
The insurance implications could also be significant, and corporations that might be contributing to climate change should plan now how to mitigate these exposures.
Environmental damage caused by climate change could be “the next mass tort” if future litigators are able to demonstrate a link between environmental damages and greenhouse gas emissions by large corporations, wrote actuary Jill Mysliwiec in a recent Milliman Inc. report, The Cost of Climate Change: Will Companies Pay in Court?
Mysliwiec pointed to the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case of American Electric Power, which pitted five large-scale private electric power companies emitting greenhouse gases against the City of New York and eight additional states.
In an 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court held that corporations cannot be sued for greenhouse gas emissions under federal common law, primarily because the Clean Air Act delegates the management of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“While the AEP case may not have specifically created a path to indemnification, the fact that it didn’t rule out any possible future litigation efforts speaks volumes,” Mysliwiec wrote. “The ruling may be an indication that such potential efforts may in fact be successful in the future.”
Since a major obstacle in litigation has been demonstrating a cause and effect relationship between damages and emissions, and in identifying a specific defendant, future groups of plaintiffs and defendants might be lumped in a single mass tort litigation case, she wrote.
Such plaintiffs could be armed by each defendant’s public disclosures of their greenhouse gas emissions, now required by the EPA.
“If documentation exists proving that a corporation was aware of its harmful operations, avoiding the consequences becomes more difficult,” she wrote.
“As was the case with tobacco and asbestos, we likely will not know whether climate change will be the next mega-tort for many years.” —Warren A. Koshofer, partner, Michelman & Robinson LLP
Warren A. Koshofer, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Michelman & Robinson LLP, said that there are significant hurdles to obtaining coverage for climate change litigation under standard commercial general liability policies, as highlighted by the Virginia Supreme Court decision in AES Corp. v. Steadfast.
“The occurrence hurdle is one that is not readily susceptible to negotiation when new CGL policies are being obtained,” Koshofer said. “The two exclusions can, however, be the subject of negotiations with the insurer.”
Given the current state of climate change litigation, where plaintiffs are having extreme difficulty overcoming the standing and political question doctrines and otherwise establishing claims against emitters of greenhouse gases, the real goal for an insured is to avoid the insurer being relieved of their duty to defend, which is broader than their duty to indemnify, he said.
Separating the duty to defend from the indemnity provisions of the CGL policy is one potential avenue an insured can explore — whether through negotiated sub-limits or the procurement of a stand-alone defense cost policy.
“As was the case with tobacco and asbestos, we likely will not know whether climate change will be the next mega-tort for many years,” Koshofer said.
“While it certainly is following the early pattern of tobacco and asbestos, a key difference is the injuries alleged in climate change cases thus far have been more focused on property damage than the significant bodily injuries that ultimately fueled the plaintiff’s bar to refine and target tobacco and asbestos related cases.”
Lindene E. Patton, chief climate product officer of Zurich Insurance Group in Schaumburg, Ill., who co-authored a book titled Climate Change and Insurance, said that plaintiffs are now experimenting in the tort liability area, as well as claims of statutory violations or noncompliance.
But so far, that litigation is largely at the procedural stage and “not a whole lot beyond that.”
Still, underwriters should consider looking for appropriate risk management practices from clients that could be potentially exposed to such litigation — whether that is greenhouse gas emitters or professional service providers, such as engineers or consultants who do work involving greenhouse gas or adaptation to climate change, Patton said.
For example, she said, engineers need to understand that the law is now examining whether “conduct evaluating and managing climate-related risks not only should consider historical exposures, but also projected exposures in the future. If an engineer is going to deliver a product to customer who declines to address future exposures expected by climate scientists, then engineers need to explain to their clients the range of potential impacts based on the expert advice.”
There might be dispute about which science to apply. And if a loss occurs, litigation might lead to the ultimate determination of who was right and who was wrong, Patton said. However, underwriters might have to pay for defense expenses, even if the carriers ultimately have no indemnity expenses. This will be true for professional liability policies as well as general liability policies, to the extent they are triggered.
“People who believe that they have followed the law and received a permit to build or have purchased a property may wake up one day with their property blown away or underwater, with no mechanism to get relief, and they may look elsewhere for compensation,” she said. “This appears to be what we’re seeing in some cases of climate change litigation.”
Mysliwiec suggested that companies mitigate potential exposures by forming partnerships with governmental entities to develop a means for funds to be pooled and set aside for damages.
Companies, either individually or as a group, should also take a proactive approach to provide funds to cover losses, “in an effort to appeal to consumers,” she wrote.
In addition, insurers should develop a means to provide the funds for these losses, potentially through the use of catastrophe models.
“It would be advantageous to all parties involved for a proactive solution to be explored, in an effort to avoid the high costs of defense and litigation that may come from a less assertive approach,” Mysliwiec wrote.
“This uncertainty and our society’s current state could be creating an ideal situation for the next mass tort of our generation. The money to pay for the damages will have to come from somewhere and it remains to be seen just where that deep pocket may be hiding.”
Coping with Cancellations
Airlines typically can offset revenue losses for cancellations due to bad weather either by saving on fuel and salary costs or rerouting passengers on other flights, but this year’s revenue losses from the worst winter storm season in years might be too much for traditional measures.
At least one broker said the time may be right for airlines to consider crafting custom insurance programs to account for such devastating seasons.
For a good part of the country, including many parts of the Southeast, snow and ice storms have wreaked havoc on flight cancellations, with a mid-February storm being the worst of all. On Feb. 13, a snowstorm from Virginia to Maine caused airlines to scrub 7,561 U.S. flights, more than the 7,400 cancelled flights due to Hurricane Sandy, according to MasFlight, industry data tracker based in Bethesda, Md.
Roughly 100,000 flights have been canceled since Dec. 1, MasFlight said.
Just United, alone, the world’s second-largest airline, reported that it had cancelled 22,500 flights in January and February, 2014, according to Bloomberg. The airline’s completed regional flights was 87.1 percent, which was “an extraordinarily low level,” and almost 9 percentage points below its mainline operations, it reported.
And another potentially heavy snowfall was forecast for last weekend, from California to New England.
The sheer amount of cancellations this winter are likely straining airlines’ bottom lines, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for major U.S. airline companies.
“The airline industry’s fixed costs are high, therefore the majority of operating costs will still be incurred by airlines, even for canceled flights,” Connell wrote in an email. “If a flight is canceled due to weather, the only significant cost that the airline avoids is fuel; otherwise, it must still pay ownership costs for aircraft and ground equipment, maintenance costs and overhead and most crew costs. Extended storms and other sources of irregular operations are clear reminders of the industry’s operational and financial vulnerability to factors outside its control.”
Bob Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant who is principal of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., said that two-thirds of costs — fuel and labor — are short-term variable costs, but that fixed charges are “unfortunately incurred.” Airlines just typically absorb those costs.
“I am not aware of any airline that has considered taking out business interruption insurance for weather-related disruptions; it is simply a part of the business,” Mann said.
Chuck Cederroth, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions’ aviation practice, said carriers would probably not want to insure airlines against cancellations because airlines have control over whether a flight will be canceled, particularly if they don’t want to risk being fined up to $27,500 for each passenger by the Federal Aviation Administration when passengers are stuck on a tarmac for hours.
“How could an insurance product work when the insured is the one who controls the trigger?” Cederroth asked. “I think it would be a product that insurance companies would probably have a hard time providing.”
But Brad Meinhardt, U.S. aviation practice leader, for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said now may be the best time for airlines — and insurance carriers — to think about crafting a specialized insurance program to cover fluke years like this one.
“I would be stunned if this subject hasn’t made its way up into the C-suites of major and mid-sized airlines,” Meinhardt said. “When these events happen, people tend to look over their shoulder and ask if there is a solution for such events.”
Airlines often hedge losses from unknown variables such as varying fuel costs or interest rate fluctuations using derivatives, but those tools may not be enough for severe winters such as this year’s, he said. While products like business interruption insurance may not be used for airlines, they could look at weather-related insurance products that have very specific triggers.
For example, airlines could designate a period of time for such a “tough winter policy,” say from the period of November to March, in which they can manage cancellations due to 10 days of heavy snowfall, Meinhardt said. That amount could be designated their retention in such a policy, and anything in excess of the designated snowfall days could be a defined benefit that a carrier could pay if the policy is triggered. Possibly, the trigger would be inches of snowfall. “Custom solutions are the idea,” he said.
“Airlines are not likely buying any of these types of products now, but I think there’s probably some thinking along those lines right now as many might have to take losses as write-downs on their quarterly earnings and hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “There probably needs to be one airline making a trailblazing action on an insurance or derivative product — something that gets people talking about how to hedge against those losses in the future.”
RIMS Recap: Tech Trends that Could Change Everything
Last month, Gordon Clemons, CEO and Chairman of CorVel Corporation, presented at the RIMS Conference in New Orleans, La. about emerging technology and how it is impacting risk management and workers’ compensation. The discussion served as a springboard for new insights on how technology will change the industry, and reaffirmed the need for integrated systems and human interaction for the best results.
The presentation noted the future is here – and technology is constantly evolving in hopes of outpacing tomorrow’s needs. As these technology platforms become more inherent in daily life, the gap in translating their utilization to workers’ compensation will begin to close.
Technology in Healthcare
While many consumer-based technology advancements exist in other industries, perhaps most notably in the retail space helping vendors to reduce various delays in the sales experience, people may forget that healthcare, too, is a consumer industry. And as such, healthcare also experiences workflow lags, which can be collapsed.
While patients and claims may not lend themselves as freely to mobile applications and technology that subscribes to the “Internet of Things” philosophy, the rapid rate of development foretells the not-too-far-off arrival of the “a-ha,” “wow factor”-type application that consumers are seeking in the healthcare industry.
Once we get there, we can only expect that the Pangea of resources will yield better outcomes. The potential impact to medical management includes more affordable/accessible healthcare, patient convenience, personal assistance, automatic inputs to claims systems and less administration from both patients and injured workers.
“Healthcare is stubborn about change. There are more data points in healthcare and there is a greater need for high quality and accuracy,” Clemons said.
Tech Trends for the Next Digital Decade
As an industry advocate in all things innovation, CorVel has been keeping tabs on emerging tech trends. As they begin to influence in other industries, it sparks the question – will they eventually change workers’ compensation?
Here are some of the trends on CorVel’s radar:
Smart phones and tablets were the first mobile devices to really start to gain traction across people’s personal lives. Since then, wearables (like Fitbits and smart watches) have been part of the next digital generation to be taken up by consumers.
As these personal devices quickly advance, wearables could offer payors and employers added insight into the wellness of claimants through the extent of their retrievable data.
Beacons are devices that use low-energy Bluetooth connections to communicate messages or triggers directly to a smart device (such as a phone or tablet). Retailers have started using this technology, sending offers to near-by consumers’ phones. Now the concepts of smart mirrors and smart walls offer a one-stop-shop with recommendations related to the preferences of the shopper – making a hyper-efficient business model. It is possible that we could see these devices adapted to being a catalyst for healthcare’s business model by reducing the delays of administrative work.
Formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), drones can be remote-controlled or flown autonomously through pre-defined flight plans within their internal systems. Some carriers are testing the use of drones to potentially be used to evaluate property damage and responding to natural disasters.
As most injuries reported in workers’ compensation are musculoskeletal injuries, the industry lends itself well to the benefits of telecommunications and telemedicine. With the rise of electronic capabilities, telemedicine becomes another option to help guide an injured worker through their entire episode of care, reducing time delays.
In order to get to that point in time, implementing these trends (and those that are yet to be launched) will only be as successful as the population willing to accept them. Buy-in will require a commitment to the long-standing pillars of the industry. According to Clemons, “While technology can truly move the needle in workers’ compensation, it will take more than bells and whistles to maximize its impact.”
“People’s feelings are valid. The skepticism surrounding new technology is not misplaced, but neither is the enthusiasm,” Clemons said.
New Trends, Same Priorities
Beyond the buzzwords and hype surrounding the latest apps and devices, for new technology to succeed within the workers’ compensation realm, it boils down to the two primary concepts that drive the industry to begin with – effective infrastructure and a people-first philosophy.
The power of applicable resources and the actionable data that results from them is in the foundation of the systems themselves; that primarily being through the influence of integration. It is not a new concept; however, as technology advances and the reach of analytic capabilities broadens, it is important to find a provider that can harness this data and channel it into effective workflows to increase efficiencies and promote better outcomes.
CorVel’s proprietary claims management system has been developed and supported by an in-house, full-time information systems division to be intuitive and user-friendly. Complex, proprietary algorithms link codified data across the system, facilitating collaboration between services, workflows, customers, and technology and eliminating the risk that a crucial piece of information will be missed. The result is an active “ecosystem” providing customers with actionable data to provide the most accurate, comprehensive picture at any time, while also collapsing inherent delays.
For the injured worker, the critical human touch connection in the workers’ compensation process can never be minimized. By cutting lag time throughout the various inefficiencies underlying the industry’s workflows, CorVel can connect injured workers with quality care sooner. As systems advance, claims and managed care associates do not have to spend as much time on administrative work and will instead be able to devote more time to the injured workers, reviving the human touch aspect that is just as impactful within the industry.
Regardless of the technology that lies ahead, CorVel looks to the future with investments in innovation, while not losing sight of their role and responsibility to clients and patients. Dedicated to constant improvement for the services they provide injured workers and industry payors, CorVel is committed to improving industry services one app, click, drone (or whatever is yet to come) at a time – perhaps something to discuss in San Diego at next year’s RIMS conference.
For more information, visit corvel.com.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with CorVel Corporation. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.