This summer, at one of California’s numerous wildfires, the appearance of a drone over Interstate 15 forced firefighting aircraft to back off for about 20 minutes until it flew away.
Instead of 40 or 50 acres burning before that fire was controlled, a few thousand acres, along with about 20 vehicles, were destroyed, as drivers ran from the area, according to reports.
In July alone, there were about a half-dozen similar incidents in California. Anywhere from two to five drones appeared at fire sites, sometimes chasing after the air tankers and helicopters, and forcing the aircraft to delay dropping retardant or even calling off operations until the areas could be cleared.
“It has hampered our efforts,” said Dennis Brown, chief of flight operations at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which has about 50 air tankers and helicopters that respond nearly daily to wildfires from March through November.
“The size of the drones, even though they look small, could cause significant damage to any of our aircraft,” Brown said. The tail rotor of a helicopter is particularly vulnerable and a tail rotor strike could be catastrophic. “We had one helicopter pilot coming in to land to drop off a crew and there was a near miss by a drone,” he said. “It was 20 to 30 feet away, right in the windscreen.”
Sometimes, the drones are operated by homeowners checking for damage to their property. Sometimes it’s just curiosity or a desire to photograph the scene and post it to social media that prompts the drone operators.
“The size of the drones, even though they look small, could cause significant damage to any of our aircraft.” — Dennis Brown, chief of flight operations, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)
But regardless of the reason, interference from drone operators is obstructing firefighting efforts and increasing danger to the pilots and their aircraft.
“The pilots are flying low and they are flying fast,” said John Glenn, chief of fire operations for the Bureau of Land Management. “There are a lot of hazards there. You throw drones or UAVs into the mix and there have been a number of cases where we have shut down operations until we can clear the air.”
Open Season for Drones
Public safety hazards due to drones aren’t limited to firefighting. The Federal Aviation Administration reports about two dozen drone sightings per month at airports throughout the nation, according to reports.
In one reported case, a plane headed from Washington, D.C. to LaGuardia Airport in New York had to pull up about 200 feet to avoid a collision with a drone in its path as it tried to land.
UAVs have buzzed French nuclear plants, landed on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s residence (with radioactive material, no less), and even landed on the White House lawn. In August, a riot broke out in an Ohio prison yard after a drone dropped a package containing significant quantities of marijuana and heroin.
Drones have flown over sporting events and city parks — to sometimes deadly effect. One 19-year-old man died in a New York park when he lost control of his drone helicopter and the fast-moving blades cut him and killed him.
Drones have been sighted during a game of the Texas Longhorns football team and at a Philadelphia Phillies game. A triathlete in Western Australia had to be taken to the hospital just yards from the finish line after a drone fell on her.
“They take a pretty decent picture and they are fun and cute, but it’s not real smart to be flying a drone in an arena,” said J. Matthew Ouellette, owner/general adjuster at Ouellette & Associates in Indiana.
“The drone could fall out of the sky … and into somebody’s lap or into their beer,” he said. “Right now, it’s open season and people are flying them all over the place. There are just some idiots out there.”
And some people don’t take kindly to it, with reports surfacing of people shooting drones out of the sky. Of course, the reverse is also a grim prospect: One teenager was arrested after creating a drone that shoots a gun.
As for insurance coverage, the typical general liability, property or homeowners’ policy does not cover aircraft, experts said.
Insurance policies covering drone use are generally purchased by either the owner/operator of the drone or the manufacturer, said Patton Kline, senior vice president, Marsh Aviation. “Obviously, the risks for those two groups are very different.”
And, in the end, he said, it is the manufacturers that may face the greatest liability.
“If there is a significant event, we are concerned that litigation will come back to the UAS [unmanned aerial system] manufacturer because they will have the deep pockets,” he said.
“If you have a weekend warrior flying a drone for fun, they don’t necessarily understand the risks and if they are involved in a significant loss, they may not have insurance to pay for damages.”
“Right now, it’s open season and people are flying them all over the place. There are just some idiots out there.” — J. Matthew Ouellette, owner/general adjuster, Ouellette & Associates
For large aerospace companies that use or manufacture drones, it’s fairly easy for them to work with their insurers to add drone coverage to current policies or to add a stand-alone policy, Kline said.
Coverage may include physical damage to the UAS, propulsion units, payload/cargo (imaging, sensors or specialty equipment that may be more expensive than the UAS itself), ground station control units, spare parts and transit coverage.
All of that is available, he said, from up to a dozen insurers including AIG, Global Aerospace, Allianz, Starr Aviation, United States Aviation Underwriters and Berkley Aviation, as well as insurers that do not historically provide aviation coverage.
In addition, ISO has crafted a drone endorsement as a coverage extension to some of their commercial general liability (CGL) policy forms for insureds that seek to add drone coverage to CGL policies, he said.
The cost of physical damage coverage (also known as hull coverage) can be expensive, particularly for new or unproven unmanned aerial system platforms. Insuring $1 million in value could cost up to $100,000, depending on the UAV platform, with many policies typically in the $50,000 range, experts said.
Third-party liability, such as for bodily injury or property damage due to drones is also available, and is much less expensive, experts said. Product liability coverage would also be an important coverage to consider for UAV manufacturers.
A commercial stand-alone UAV liability policy for $1 million could start as low as $1,000, said Vikki Stone, senior vice president, Poms & Associates.
She said she has seen interest in such coverage from organizations that use drones in their business, such as entertainment, aerial mapping, residential construction and pipeline construction.
“We are seeing a lot of individuals who may have been hobbyists or pilots who are seeing an opportunity to start up a business,” she said.
“The bigger concern is rogue flyers. The industry has not yet really had enough time to assemble any sort of loss experience. As that evolves, we are likely to see changes in the marketplace, but it’s too new yet.”
Another issue that carriers and brokers are still grappling with is invasion of privacy, which could offer potential litigation concerns. That coverage is currently excluded by all drone insurers, according to Marsh’s recent report, “Dawning of the Drones: The Evolving Risk of Unmanned Aerial Systems.”
Eamonn Cunningham, chief risk officer, Scentre Group, said the first step to purchasing coverage would be to analyze meaningful gaps between what is in existing policies and what is needed.
“Absolutely do your homework in advance and sometimes you might need experts from outside the organization to understand what’s appropriate and what’s not,” he said.
“The processes that you go through in trying to determine what this relatively brand new risk means to you — it’s a real challenge.”
An organization may not need bespoke coverage once a gap analysis and risk assessment is performed, he said.
He compared drone coverage today with the purchase of cyber coverage a half-dozen years ago. At that time, many companies ended up buying a commodity — the typical cyber policy — instead of coverage that protected the specific risks faced by the organization.
“If you know exactly what you are buying, there’s less chance you will be disappointed when something happens and you find it doesn’t fit the specific manner in which you use, operate, sell or manufacture the drone,” he said.
Ella Atkins, associate professor, aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, said federal regulations have hampered the safe use of drones because Congress exempted hobbyists flying under 500 feet from FAA rulemaking in the 2012 FAA reauthorization act.
“The problem is … the FAA’s policies focus on unmanned aircraft operating near airports,” she said.
“You need people on the ground to enforce low-altitude airspace flight, not the FAA. They have no presence away from airports [to control the situation].”
While Atkins doesn’t expect it to happen, some others are anticipating that the FAA may issue final regulations related to drone use by the end of this year.
But, if the FAA puts its focus on bans or strict regulations for low-altitude drone use away from airports, the effort will come to naught, she said. Instead, local and state governments and private landowners should be empowered to apply disorderly conduct and trespass laws as ways to control the hazards of rogue drone use.
“We need to start realizing that it’s a matter of what the person does with the drone, not the drone itself that is bad or good,” Atkins said.
In addition, she said, the FAA is ignoring a 1946 federal legal case that ruled property owners have control over the airspace immediately above their land.
Current rules mean that a farmer could be struck by a drone on his own property and have no recourse, or that Amazon.com could fly 10 feet over a home on its way to deliver a package and owe the property owner no compensation for use of the airspace.
“We need to start realizing that it’s a matter of what the person does with the drone, not the drone itself that is bad or good.” — Ella Atkins, associate professor, aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan
Recently, Amazon suggested a separate airspace lane for commercial drone delivery flights, which called for UAVs to fly between 200 feet and 400 feet. The air traffic control for that space would be handled by an automated computer system.
About 100 companies, including Amazon, Google and Verizon Communications, have agreed to work with NASA to help devise that air traffic system, according to reports.
There are no firm answers to the problem, said Jeff Power, regional aviation officer, U.S. Forest Service. He noted that one current law that could apply to firefighting is a restriction on interfering with public officials in the course of their duty.
But, he said, it’s very difficult to track down the drone operators.
“A large part of it is education of the drone operators,” Power said, although he noted that one day soon it may be emergency service organizations that are operating drones to help combat hazardous situations.
In fact, Texas A&M University held a seminar this summer about the way drone technology could be used to help deal with deadly flooding.
“We understand the capabilities,” Power said, “but when we have the recreational drone operator who isn’t necessarily familiar with the FAA’s requirements and flight restrictions — that’s the big issue. It’s a matter of educating them and hopefully no one gets hurt in the meantime.”
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Buyers Beware: General Liability Outlook May be Shifting
The soothing drumbeat of “excess capital” and “soft market” to describe the general liability (GL) market is a familiar sound for brokers and buyers. Emerging GL trends, however, suggest the calm may not last.
Increasing severity of GL claims may hit some sectors like a light rain at first, if they have not already, but they could quickly feel like a pelting thunderstorm in others. A number of factors could contribute to the potential jump in GL prices for certain industry segments or exposures, possibly creating “micro” or niche hard markets in the short-term, and maybe even turning the broader market over the longer-term.
“There are trends we’re seeing that will play out slowly. Industries that carry more general liability exposure will and have been hit first and hardest, but it won’t apply across the board initially,” said David Perez, Senior Vice President and Chief Underwriting Officer, for Liberty Mutual Insurance’s National Insurance Specialty operation. “There is ample capital in the market today, which allows a poor performing account to move its policy frequently from carrier to carrier. Poorer performing classes, however, will likely face increased pricing for GL policies and a reduction in capacity.”
The good news for buyers is that they can take action today to lessen the impact these trends and the evolving market may have on their GL programs.
David Perez on the state of the GL market.
Medical and Litigation Trends Drive Severity
One factor increasing claim severity is the rising cost of health care, driven both by greater demand and by medical inflation that is growing faster than the Consumer Price index.
The impact of rising medical costs on commercial auto is well-known. Businesses with heavy transportation exposures are finding it more difficult to obtain coverage, or are paying more for it.
That same trend will impact general liability, just on a slower and more fragmented basis.
“In light of these trends, brokers and buyers should seek to understand how effectively their current or potential insurers defend GL claims, particular in using evidence-based medicine to assess and value the medical portion of a claim, and how they can provide necessary care to claimants while still helping clients control their total cost of risk.”
— David Perez, Senior Vice President & Chief Underwriting Officer, National Insurance Specialty, Liberty Mutual Insurance
“It takes longer for medical inflation to register through the tort system in general liability than it does in auto liability (AL) because auto claims are generally resolved more quickly,” Perez said. “But the same factors affecting severity in AL also exist in GL and as a result, it’s foreseeable that we will not only see similar severity trends in GL, but they may in fact be worse than we’ve seen in commercial auto.”
Industries with greater exposure to severity in general liability claims should be the first wave of companies to notice the impact of medical inflation.
“Medical inflation will drive up costs across the board, but sectors like construction and product manufacturing have a higher relative exposure for personal injury lawsuits.”
The impact of medical inflation on the GL market.
Beyond medical inflation, two litigation trends are increasing GL damages. First, plaintiffs’ lawyers are seeking to migrate the use of life care plans—traditionally employed only for truly catastrophic injuries—to more routine claims. Perez recalled one claimant with a broken thumb and torn ligaments who sought as much as $1 million in care for the injury for the rest of his life.
Second, the number of allegations of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in GL claims is growing. It can be difficult to predict TBI outcomes initially and poor outcomes can be expensive and long tailed.
“In light of these trends, brokers and buyers should seek to understand how effectively their current or potential insurers defend GL claims, particular in using evidence-based medicine to assess and value the medical portion of a claim, and how they can provide necessary care to claimants while still helping clients control their total cost of risk,” notes Perez.
Changing Legal Landscape
Medical inflation and litigation trends are not the only issues impacting general liability.
Unanticipated changes in court interpretations of policy language can throw unexpected pressure on GL pricing and capacity.
Courts sometimes issue rulings interpreting policy language in a manner that expands coverage well beyond the underwriter’s original intent. Such opinions may sometimes have a retroactive effect, resulting in an immediate impact on not only open, but also closed cases in some circumstances.
Shifts in the Marketplace
In addition to facing price increases, GL brokers and buyers will be challenged by slightly shrinking capacity due to consolidation and repositioning among carriers in the marketplace. “Some major carriers have scaled back their GL writing, resulting in a migration of experienced senior management. As these executives leave, they take their GL expertise and relationships with them, resulting in fewer market leaders and less innovation,” Perez said.
“Additionally, there are new carriers coming into the business that may not have the historical GL loss data to proactively identify trends or the financial strength and experience to effectively service their GL customers and brokers. Both trends make it important for brokers and buyers to work with an insurer that is committed to the GL market and has the understanding and resources to help better manage risks impacting customers.”
Last year saw a high level of mergers and acquisitions in the insurance industry. Buyers should take advantage of that disruption to re-evaluate their needs and whether their insurers are meeting them. Or better yet, anticipating them.
What’s a Buyer to Do?
Buyers—and their brokers— should look to partner with insurers that can spot emerging trends and offer creative solutions to address them proactively.
What should buyers and brokers do, given the trends facing the GL market?
“Brokers and buyers should value insurers that have not only durability and a long history in the general liability business, but also a strong risk management infrastructure,” Perez said. “Your insurer should be able to help you mitigate your specific risks, and complement that with coverage that works for you.”
Beyond robust GL claims and legal management, Liberty Mutual also provides access to one of the insurance industry’s largest risk control departments to help improve safety and mitigate both claim frequency and severity.
In addition, notes Perez, “Even if a company has a less than optimal loss history in general liability, there can be options to provide adequate coverage for that company. The key is to partner with an insurer that has the best-in-class expertise, creativity, and flexibility to make it happen.”
By working closely with their insurers to understand trends and their potential impacts, brokers and buyers can better prepare for the possible GL storm on the horizon.
To learn more about Liberty Mutual’s general liability offering, visit https://business.libertymutualgroup.com/business-insurance/coverages/general-liability-insurance-policy.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.