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.”
Pathogens, Allergens and Globalization – Oh My!
In 2014, a particular brand of cumin was used by dozens of food manufacturers to produce everything from spice mixes, hummus and bread crumbs to seasoned beef, poultry and pork products.
Yet, unbeknownst to these manufacturers, a potentially deadly contaminant was lurking…
What followed was the largest allergy-related recall since the U.S. Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act became law in 2006. Retailers pulled 600,000 pounds of meat off the market, as well as hundreds of other products. As of May 2015, reports of peanut contaminated cumin were still being posted by FDA.
Food manufacturing executives have long known that a product contamination event is a looming risk to their business. While pathogens remain a threat, the dramatic increase in food allergen recalls coupled with distant, global supply chains creates an even more unpredictable and perilous exposure.
Recently peanut, an allergen in cumin, has joined the increasing list of unlikely contaminants, taking its place among a growing list that includes melamine, mineral oil, Sudan red and others.
“I have seen bacterial contaminations that are more damaging to a company’s finances than if a fire burnt down the entire plant.”
— Nicky Alexandru, global head of Crisis Management at AIG
“An event such as the cumin contamination has a domino effect in the supply chain,” said Nicky Alexandru, global head of Crisis Management at AIG, which was the first company to provide contaminated product coverage almost 30 years ago. “With an ingredient like the cumin being used in hundreds of products, the third party damages add up quickly and may bankrupt the supplier. This leaves manufacturers with no ability to recoup their losses.”
“The result is that a single contaminated ingredient may cause damage on a global scale,” added Robert Nevin, vice president at Lexington Insurance Company, an AIG company.
Quality and food safety professionals are able to drive product safety in their own manufacturing operations utilizing processes like kill steps and foreign material detection. But such measures are ineffective against an unexpected contaminant. “Food and beverage manufacturers are constantly challenged to anticipate and foresee unlikely sources of potential contamination leading to product recall,” said Alexandru. “They understandably have more control over their own manufacturing environment but can’t always predict a distant supply chain failure.”
And while companies of various sizes are impacted by a contamination, small to medium size manufacturers are at particular risk. With less of a capital cushion, many of these companies could be forced out of business.
Historically, manufacturing executives were hindered in their risk mitigation efforts by a perceived inability to quantify the exposure. After all, one can’t manage what one can’t measure. But AIG has developed a new approach to calculate the monetary exposure for the individual analysis of the three major elements of a product contamination event: product recall and replacement, restoring a safe manufacturing environment and loss of market. With this more precise cost calculation in hand, risk managers and brokers can pursue more successful risk mitigation and management strategies.
Product Recall and Replacement
Whether the contamination is a microorganism or an allergen, the immediate steps are always the same. The affected products are identified, recalled and destroyed. New product has to be manufactured and shipped to fill the void created by the recall.
The recall and replacement element can be estimated using company data or models, such as NOVI. Most companies can estimate the maximum amount of product available in the stream of commerce at any point in time. NOVI, a free online tool provided by AIG, estimates the recall exposures associated with a contamination event.
Restore a Safe Manufacturing Environment
Once the recall is underway, concurrent resources are focused on removing the contamination from the manufacturing process, and restarting production.
“Unfortunately, this phase often results in shell-shocked managers,” said Nevin. “Most contingency planning focuses on the costs associated with the recall but fail to adequately plan for cleanup and downtime.”
“The losses associated with this phase can be similar to a fire or other property loss that causes the operation to shut down. The consequential financial loss is the same whether the plant is shut down due to a fire or a pathogen contamination.” added Alexandru. “And then you have to factor in the clean-up costs.”
Locating the source of pathogen contamination can make disinfecting a plant after a contamination event more difficult. A single microorganism living in a pipe or in a crevice can create an ongoing contamination.
“I have seen microbial contaminations that are more damaging to a company’s finances than if a fire burnt down the entire plant,” observed Alexandru.
Handling an allergen contamination can be more straightforward because it may be restricted to a single batch. That is, unless there is ingredient used across multiple batches and products that contains an unknown allergen, like peanut residual in cumin.
Supply chain investigation and testing associated with identifying a cross-contaminated ingredient is complicated, costly and time consuming. Again, the supplier can be rendered bankrupt leaving them unable to provide financial reimbursement to client manufacturers.
“Until companies recognize the true magnitude of the financial risk and account for each of three components of a contamination, they can’t effectively protect their balance sheet. Businesses can end up buying too little or no coverage at all, and before they know it, their business is gone.”
— Robert Nevin, vice president at Lexington Insurance, an AIG company
Loss of Market
While the manufacturer is focused on recall and cleanup, the world of commerce continues without them. Customers shift to new suppliers or brands, often resulting in permanent damage to the manufacturer’s market share.
For manufacturers providing private label products to large retailers or grocers, the loss of a single client can be catastrophic.
“Often the customer will deem continuing the relationship as too risky and will switch to another supplier, or redistribute the business to existing suppliers” said Alexandru. “The manufacturer simply cannot find a replacement client; after all, there are a limited number of national retailers.”
On the consumer front, buyers may decide to switch brands based on the negative publicity or simply shift allegiance to another product. Given the competitiveness of the food business, it’s very difficult and costly to get consumers to come back.
“It’s a sad fact that by the time a manufacturer completes a recall, cleans up the plant and gets the product back on the shelf, some people may be hesitant to buy it.” said Nevin.
A complicating factor not always planned for by small and mid-sized companies, is publicity.
The recent incident surrounding a serious ice cream contamination forced both regulatory agencies and the manufacturer to be aggressive in remedial actions. The details of this incident and other contamination events were swiftly and highly publicized. This can be as damaging as the contamination itself and may exacerbate any or all of the three elements discussed above.
Estimating the Financial Risk May Save Your Company
“In our experience, most companies retain product contamination losses within their own balance sheet.” Nevin said. “But in reality, they rarely do a thorough evaluation of the financial risk and sometimes the company simply cannot absorb the financial consequences of a contamination. Potential for loss is much greater when factoring in all three components of a contamination event.”
This brief video provides a concise overview of the three elements of the product contamination event and the NOVI tool and benefits:
“Until companies recognize the true magnitude of the financial risk and account for each of three components of a contamination, they can’t effectively protect their balance sheet,” he said. “Businesses can end up buying too little or no coverage at all, and before they know it, their business is gone.”
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Lexington Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.