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One [Insurance] Policy Does Not Fit All - JPML Limits Centralization of COVID-19 Insurance Coverage Cases...At This Time

Hundreds of businesses seeking centralization of litigation for insurance coverage for losses from the COVID-19 pandemic have to file their cases elsewhere.

On August 12, 2020, in a much-anticipated ruling, The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation rejected two petitions to centralize hundreds of cases filed by the policyholders of businesses suffering losses from the Pandemic; however, the panel did indicate that centralization may certainly be appropriate for cases against single insurer policies.

Attempts to centralize the COVID-19 cases date back to April, when two groups of policyholders asserted that the insurance coverage cases pending in numerous Federal Courts across the country were more suited as an MDL. At the time, there were fewer than twenty cases pending in Federal Courts. As of August 12, 2020, there are more than 450 with countless others anticipated in the coming year. Insurance companies were uniformly opposed to creation of any type of MDL; whereas, policyholders’ positions varied.

Policyholders sought centralization in the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, and in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, respectively. The policyholders argued the common fact issues included: whether government closure orders trigger coverage, what satisfies business interruption policies’ standard requirement of “direct physical loss or damage” to property, and whether any exclusions apply, (i.e., “contamination” and/or “virus” related losses.)

Reasoning that the cases involved hundreds of insurers and a wide variety of different policy forms, the JPML found that the movants actually presented very few common questions of fact, and such few facts were outweighed by the efficiency challenges of centralizing the litigation across an entire insurance industry. The panel found that even smaller regional or state-based MDLs would suffer from the same common fact issues, because no two policies are necessarily identical and each claim (while similar) will necessarily have different facts.

Ultimately, the JPML ruled that an industry wide multidistrict litigation would “not promote a quick resolution” of cases where “time is of the essence.”

Pivoting, the JPML did suggest that the creation of smaller “single-insurer” MDLs could be efficient to centralize those actions. They found that cases argued against one insurer or insurance group were “more likely to involve insurance policies utilizing the same language, endorsements, and exclusions” that would make sharing common discovery and pretrial motion proceedings more efficient.

Attorneys sought centralization hoping that some procedural mechanism would be found to prevent the chaos. Ultimately, maintaining separate and distinct claims and cases will allow carriers to better address individual cases and claims handling on a much smaller, more controlled scale.

Carriers should continue to thoroughly and cautiously approach all claims, including COVID-19 interruption claims. 

* Kelly M. “Koki” Sabatés assisted in the research and drafting of this post. Sabatés earned her J.D. from the University of Missouri-Columbia this Spring and is a current candidate for admission to the Missouri Bar.