The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the global economy. Louisiana was not spared, and many businesses had to close as sales to their customers slowed or stopped altogether. Not surprisingly, the question arose regarding whether business interruption insurance would provide coverage to businesses in this situation. The Louisiana Supreme Court recently was asked this question in Cajun Conti, LLC v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London and found that the policy at issue did not provide such coverage.
The mayor of New Orleans issued a proclamation on March 16, 2020, that prohibited most public and private gatherings. This applied to restaurants, whose business initially was limited to takeout and delivery services. Before the pandemic, Oceana Grill, a restaurant located in the French Quarter, could serve up to 500 customers at one time. However, it had to limit its business to takeout and delivery services when the mayor’s proclamation was announced. Because of social distancing guidelines, it remained at 60% or less capacity throughout the pandemic.
Oceana maintained a commercial insurance policy with loss of business income coverage and filed suit to request a declaratory judgment that the “policy provides business income coverage from the contamination of the insured premises by COVID-19.” Oceana’s insurer argued that there was no coverage under the policy because COVID-19 did not cause “direct physical loss of or damage to property” under the policy’s terms.
The trial court denied Oceana’s request for declaratory relief at trial. The appellate court reversed and found the policy’s terms ambiguous because it held “direct physical loss” could mean loss of use of the property. Because the pandemic prevented the full use of the property due to capacity limitations, the appellate court found coverage was triggered.
The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed the appellate court’s decision, finding its focus on the use of the property to be misguided. The Court found that suspension of operations “caused by direct physical loss of or damage to property,” as defined by the policy, required “the insured’s property to sustain a physical, meaning tangible or corporeal, loss or damage.” The Court noted that the restaurant’s physical structure was not lost or damaged because of the pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions did not cause damage or loss that was physical in nature. Therefore, the policy did not provide coverage for loss of business income.
Whether a policy affords coverage depends on the terms and conditions of each policy and the facts of each case. However, in light of this decision, businesses with insurance policies that include provisions with language like that at issue in Cajun Conti should not anticipate coverage for loss of business income allegedly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cajun Conti LLC v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, 2022-01349 (La. 3/17/23), 2023 WL 2549132.