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.”
Detention Risks Grow for Traveling Employees
It used to be that most kidnapping events were driven by economic motives. The bad guys kidnapped corporate employees and then demanded a ransom.
These situations are always very dangerous and serious. But the bad guys’ profit motive helps ensure the safety of their hostages in order to collect a ransom.
Recently, an even more dangerous trend has emerged. Governments, insurgents and terrorist organizations are abducting employees not to make money, but to gain notoriety or for political reasons.
Without a ransom demand, an involuntarily confined person is referred to as ‘detained.’ Each detention event requires a specialized approach to try and negotiate the safe return of the hostage, depending on the ideology or motivation of the abductors.
And the risk is not just faced by global corporations but by companies of all sizes.
“The world is changing. We see many more occasions where governments are getting involved in detentions and insurgent/terrorist groups are growing in size and scope. It’s the right time for a discussion about detention risks.”
— Tom Dunlap, Assistant Vice President, Liberty International Underwriters (LIU)
“Practically any company with employees traveling abroad or operations overseas can be a target for a detention risk,” said Tom Dunlap, assistant vice president at Liberty International Underwriters (LIU). “Whether you are setting up a foreign operation, sourcing raw materials or equipment overseas, or trying to establish an overseas sales contract, people are traveling everywhere today for so many reasons.”
Emerging Threats Driven By New Groups Using New Tools
Many of the groups who pose the most dangerous detention threats are well versed in how to use the Internet and social media for PR, recruiting and communication. ISIS, for example, generates worldwide publicity with their gruesome videos that are distributed through multiple electronic channels.
Bad guys leverage their digital skills to identify companies and their employees who conduct business overseas. Corporate websites and personal social media often provide enough information to target employees who are working abroad.
And if executives are too well protected to abduct, these tools can also be used to identify and target family members who may be less well protected.
The explosion of new groups who pose the most dangerous risks are generally classified into three categories:
Insurgents – Detentions by these groups are most often intended to keep a government or humanitarian group from delivering services or aid to certain populations, usually in a specific territory, for political reasons. They also take hostages to make a political statement and, on occasion, will ask for a ransom.
In other cases, insurgent groups detain aid workers in order to provide the aid themselves (to win over locals to their cause). They also attempt prisoner swaps by offering to trade their hostages for prisoners held by the government.
The most dangerous groups include FARC (Colombia), ISIS (Syria and Iraq), Boko Haram (Nigeria), Taliban (Pakistan and Afghanistan) and Al Shabab (Somalia).
Governments – Often use detention as a way to hide illegal or suspect activities. In Iran, an American woman was working with Iranian professors to organize a cultural exchange program for Iranian students. Without notice, she was arrested and accused of subversion to overthrow the government. In a separate incident, a journalist was thrown in jail for not presenting proper credentials when he entered the country.
“Government allegations against detainees vary but in most cases are unfounded or untrue,” said Dunlap. “Often these detentions are attempts to prevent the monitoring of elections or conducting inspections.”
Even local city and town governments present an increased detention risk. In one recent case, a local manager of a foreign company was arrested in order to try and force a favorable settlement in a commercial dispute.
Ideology-driven terrorists – Extremist groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS are grabbing most of today’s headlines with their public displays of ultra-violence and unwillingness to compromise. The threat from these groups is particularly dangerous because their motives are based on pure ideology and, at the same time, they seek media exposure as a recruiting tool.
These groups don’t care who they abduct — journalist, aid worker, student or private employee – they just need hostages.
“The main idea here is to shock people and show how governments and businesses are powerless to protect their citizens and employees,” observed Dunlap.
Mitigating the Risks
Even if no ransom demands are made, an LIU kidnap and ransom policy will deliver benefits to employers and their employees encountering a detention scenario.
For instance, the policy provides a hostage’s family with salary continuation for the duration of their captivity. For a family who’s already dealing with the terror of abduction, ensuring financial stability is an important benefit.
In addition, coverage provides for security for the family if they, too, may be at risk. It also pays for travel and accommodations if the family, employees or consultants need to travel to the detention location. Then there are potential medical and psychological care costs for the employee when they are released as well as litigation defense costs for the company.
LIU coverage also includes expert consultant and response services from red24, a leading global crisis management assistance firm. Even without a ransom negotiation to manage, the services of expert consultants are vital.
“We have witnessed a marked increase in wrongful detentions involving the business traveler. In some regions of the world wrongful detentions are referred to as “business kidnappings.” The victim is often held against their will because of a business dispute. Assisting a client who falls victim to such a scheme requires an experienced crisis management consultant,” said Jack Cloonan, head of special risks for red24.
Without coverage, the fees for experienced consultants can run as high as $3,000 per day.
Given the growing threat, it is more important than ever to be well versed about the country your company is working in. Threats vary by region and country. For example, in some locales safety dictates to always call for a cab instead of hailing one off the street. And in other countries it is never safe to use public transportation.
LIU’s coverage includes thorough pre-travel services, which are free of charge. As part of that effort, LIU makes its crisis consultants available to collaborate with insureds on potential exposures ahead of time.
Every insured employee traveling or working overseas can access vital information from the red24 website. The site contains information on individual countries or regions and what a traveler needs to know in terms of security/safety threats, documents to help avoid detention, and even medical information about risks such as pandemics, etc.
“Anyone who is a risk manager, security director, CFO or an HR leader has to think about the detention issue when they are about to send people abroad or establish operations overseas,” Dunlap said. “The world is changing. We see many more occasions where governments are getting involved in detentions and insurgent/terrorist groups are growing in size and scope. It’s the right time for a discussion about detention risks.”
For more information about the benefits LIU kidnap and ransom policies offer, please visit the website or contact your broker.
Liberty International Underwriters is the marketing name for the broker-distributed specialty lines business operations of Liberty Mutual Insurance. Certain coverage may be provided by a surplus lines insurer. Surplus lines insurers do not generally participate in state guaranty funds and insureds are therefore not protected by such funds. This literature is a summary only and does not include all terms, conditions, or exclusions of the coverage described. Please refer to the actual policy issued for complete details of coverage and exclusions.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty International Underwriters. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.