The nation’s first suit seeking a declaration of coverage under a commercial property policy for business interruption and extra expenses incurred as a result of COVID-19 was filed in a Louisiana state court on March 20, 2020. Since then, similar suits have been filed across the nation by restaurants, casinos, dentists, dive shops, movie theatres, repertory theatre companies, etc. Clearly, the same coverage issues raised in the Louisiana case will be litigated throughout the nation.
The suit in Cajun Conti, LLC, et al v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, et al, Suit No. 2020-02558, was filed on March 16, 2020, in the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans, State of Louisiana. Plaintiffs, doing business as Oceana Grill, a restaurant in the French Quarter, allege coverage should be declared to exist because: 1) the property policy is an “all risks” policy such that all risks are covered unless the insurer can clearly and specifically establish an exclusion from coverage; 2) the policy does not contain any exclusion “for losses from a virus or global pandemic;” 3) the virus has “physically impact[ed] public and private property” as it “physically infects and stays on the surface of objects or materials, ‘fomites,’ for up to twenty-eight days;” 4) such “contamination … [is] a direct physical loss needing remediation;” and, alternatively and in addition, 5) the current and future state orders limiting its operations serve to trigger the civil authority provisions of its policy.
A key issue in Cajun Conti as well as in the other COVID-19 business interruption coverage litigation will be whether the existence of the novel coronavirus constitutes a “direct physical loss or damage” under the intendment of an all risks property policy. The Cajun Conti plaintiffs cite to Widder v. Louisiana Citizens Prop. Ins. Corp., 2011-0196 (La. App. 4 Cir. 8/10/11), 82 So.3d 294, writ denied, 2011-2336 (La. 12/2/11) for the premise that the existence of a hazardous condition that renders the insured property unusable or uninhabitable is sufficient to constitute a “physical loss or damage” sufficient to trigger coverage. Notably, in Widder, the actual presence of inorganic lead in the insured property was confirmed to exist and coverage was therefore available. Because policyholders have the burden to establish the existence of “physical loss or damage,” reliance on Widder may require the Cajun Conti plaintiffs to establish coronavirus was actually present in their property or that its presence otherwise caused their property to be unusable or uninhabitable. Presence in the community may not be sufficient to prove the coronavirus made the insured property uninhabitable or unusable.
One of the items of proof required for the triggering of coverage under the civil authority provisions of a commercial property policy is that the alleged business loss was caused by an action by the civil authority that prohibited access to the insured premises. Relying on out-of-state jurisprudence, one Louisiana federal court has determined this factor requires proof that access to the insured premises be “actually and completely prohibited,” which is not satisfied if the access is merely “limited or hampered.” Kean, Miller v. National Fire Ins. Co. of Hartford, C.A. No. 06-770 (M.D. La. Aug. 29, 2007), 2007 WL 2489711, *4-*6. The state orders expressly referenced in the Cajun Conti suit would appear not to satisfy this standard as they served only to limit occupancy and required earlier closures. Even the subsequent stay-at-home orders [Proclamation Number 33 JBE 2020 and 41 JBE 2020, issued respectively on March 22, 2020 and April 2, 2020], may likely be insufficient to satisfy this requirement as they do not expressly mandate closure of restaurants, but simply require restaurants to “reduce operations to continue minimum contact with members of the public,” expressly allow for curbside delivery, drive-thru, and delivery services, and only prohibit the consumption of food and beverages on site.
The specific facts of each business interruption claim and the terms of the relevant policy should be considered in every occasion. Yet, these suits may face problems of proof generally. For now, we expect the novel suits to continue.
John has been practicing over 30 years and is a Senior Partner with firm where he serves on the Management Committee. He has devoted attention to non-profit boards dedicated to assisting at risk children. He enjoys time with his three children and grandchildren. He also enjoys tennis and hiking.
Nancy B. Gilbert is a partner with Keogh Cox in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She is a puzzle-solver by nature, and specializes in providing clear and in-depth analysis of complex litigation issues.