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.”
Achieving More Fluid Case Management
Risk management practitioners point to a number of factors that influence the outcome of workers’ compensation claims. But readily identifiable factors shouldn’t necessarily be managed in a box.
To identify and discuss the changing issues influencing workers’ compensation claim outcomes, Risk & Insurance®, in partnership with Duluth, Ga.-based Healthcare Solutions, convened an April roundtable discussion in Philadelphia.
The discussion, moderated by Dan Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance®, featured participation from four tenured claims management professionals.
This roundtable was ruled by a pragmatic tone, characterized by declarations on solutions that are finding traction on many current workers’ compensation challenges.
The advantages of face-to-face case management visits with injured workers got some of the strongest support at the roundtable.
“What you can assess from somebody’s home environment, their motivation, their attitude, their desire to get well or not get well is easy to do when you are looking at somebody and sitting in their home,” participant Barb Ritz said, a workers’ compensation manager in the office of risk services at the Temple University Health System in Philadelphia.
Telephonic case management gradually replaced face-to-face visits in many organizations, but participants said the pendulum has swung back and face-to-face visits are again more widely valued.
In person visits are beneficial not only in assessing the claimant’s condition and attitude, but also in providing an objective ear to annotate the dialogue between doctors and patients.
“Oftentimes, injured workers who go to physician appointments only retain about 20 percent of what the doctor is telling them,” said Jean Chambers, a Lakeland, Fla.-based vice president of clinical services for Bunch CareSolutions. “When you have a nurse accompanying the claimant, the nurse can help educate the injured worker following the appointment and also provide an objective update to the employer on the injured worker’s condition related to the claim.”
“The relationship that the nurse develops with the claimant is very important,” added Christine Curtis, a manager of medical services in the workers’ compensation division of New Cumberland, Pa.-based School Claims Services.
“It’s also great for fraud detection. During a visit the nurse can see symptoms that don’t necessarily match actions, and oftentimes claimants will tell nurses things they shouldn’t if they want their claim to be accepted,” Curtis said.
For these reasons and others, Curtis said that she uses onsite nursing.
Roundtable participant Susan LaBar, a Yardley, Pa.-based risk manager for transportation company Coach USA, said when she first started her job there, she insisted that nurses be placed on all lost-time cases. But that didn’t happen until she convinced management that it would work.
“We did it and the indemnity dollars went down and it more than paid for the nurses,” she said. “That became our model. You have to prove that it works and that takes time, but it does come out at the end of the day,” she said.
The ultimate outcome
Reducing costs is reason enough for implementing nurse case management, but many say safe return-to-work is the ultimate measure of a good outcome. An aging, heavier worker population plagued by diabetes, hypertension, and orthopedic problems and, in many cases, painkiller abuse is changing the very definition of safe return-to-work.
Roundtable members were unanimous in their belief that offering even the most undemanding forms of modified duty is preferable to having workers at home for extended periods of time.
“Return-to-work is the only way to control the workers’ comp cost. It’s the only way,” said Coach USA’s Susan LaBar.
Unhealthy households, family cultures in which workers’ compensation fraud can be a way of life and physical and mental atrophy are just some of the pitfalls that modified duty and return-to-work in general can help stave off.
“I take employees back in any capacity. So long as they can stand or sit or do something,” Ritz said. “The longer you’re sitting at home, the longer you’re disconnected. The next thing you know you’re isolated and angry with your employer.”
“Return-to-work is the only way to control the workers’ comp cost. It’s the only way,” said Coach USA’s Susan LaBar.
Whose story is it?
Managing return-to-work and nurse supervision of workers’ compensation cases also play important roles in controlling communication around the case. Return-to-work and modified duty can more quickly break that negative communication chain, roundtable participants said.
There was some disagreement among participants in the area of fraud. Some felt that workers’ compensation fraud is not as prevalent as commonly believed.
On the other hand, Coach USA’s Susan LaBar said that many cases start out with a legitimate injury but become fraudulent through extension.
“I’m talking about a process where claimants drag out the claim, treatment continues and they never come back to work,” she said.
Social media, as in all aspects of insurance fraud, is also playing an important role. Roundtable participants said Facebook is the first place they visit when they get a claim. Unbridled posts of personal information have become a rich library for case managers looking for indications of fraud.
“What you can assess from somebody’s home environment, their motivation, their attitude, their desire to get well or not get well is easy to do when you are looking at somebody and sitting in their home,” said participant Barb Ritz.
As daunting as co-morbidities have become, roundtable participants said that data has become a useful tool. Information about tobacco use, weight, diabetes and other complicating factors is now being used by physicians and managed care vendors to educate patients and better manage treatment.
“Education is important after an injury occurs,” said Rich Leonardo, chief sales officer for Healthcare Solutions, who also sat in on the roundtable. “The nurse is not always delivering news the patient wants to hear, so providing education on how the process is going to work is helpful.”
“We’re trying to get people to ‘Know your number’, such as to know what your blood pressure and glucose levels are,” said SCS’s Christine Curtis. “If you have somebody who’s diabetic, hypertensive and overweight, that nurse can talk directly to the injured worker and say, ‘Look, I know this is a sensitive issue, but we want you to get better and we’ll work with you because improving your overall health is important to helping you recover.”
The costs of co-morbidities are pushing case managers to be more frank in patient dialogue. Information about smoking cessation programs and weight loss approaches is now more freely offered.
Managing constant change
Anyone responsible for workers’ compensation knows that medical costs have been rising for years. But medical cost is not the only factor in the case management equation that is in motion.
The pendulum swing between technology and the human touch in treating injured workers is ever in flux. Even within a single program, the decision on when it is best to apply nurse case management varies.
“It used to be that every claim went to a nurse and now the industry is more selective,” said Bunch CareSolutions’ Jean Chambers. “However, you have to be careful because sometimes it’s the ones that seem to be a simple injury that can end up being a million dollar claim.”
“Predictive analytics can be used to help organizations flag claims for case management, but the human element will never be replaced,” Leonardo concluded.