Pollution Exclusion Deters Deliberate or Negligent Behavior that Leads to Environmental Harm

No Insurance Policy Covers Every Risk of Loss

Post 4760

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Pollution Exclusions Deter Polluters

In the world of business, corporations obtain commercial insurance to protect their assets, and commercial insurers customarily include exclusion provisions in their policies. Exclusion provisions dispel the notion that insurance coverage is without limits and place the insured on notice about actions or omissions that will trigger an insurer’s denial of coverage. Insurance policies that include pollution exclusion provisions accomplish even more.

In Gold Coast Commodities, Incorporated v. Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America, No. 23-60087, United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit (March 18, 2024) the Fifth Circuit established the reason for a pollution exclusion.

An insurance policy’s pollution exclusion deters deliberate or negligent behavior that leads to environmental harm. When a court affirms a pollution exclusion the insured is prevented from coverage, the Fifth Circuit protect the insurer’s right to disincentivize corporations from engaging in bad faith actions with a known environmental impact. This case arises from claims asserted against an insured and, due to a pollution exclusion, those claims fall outside the insurance policy’s reach.

BACKGROUND

Gold Coast Commodities, Inc. (“Gold Coast”) is a business corporation located in Rankin County, Mississippi. Gold Coast converts used cooking oil and vegetable by-products into animal feed ingredients. Gold Coast became insured under Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America (“Travelers”), Policy.

In July 2018, the City of Brandon filed suit in the Circuit Court of Rankin County against Gold Coast and its principals alleging that Gold Coast dumped “significant amounts of high-temperature, corrosive, low-pH wastewater into the City’s sewer system.” These actions or omissions are alleged to have occurred during the Policy period. The City of Brandon seeks to recover for damages from negligence resulting from the “discharge” or “release” of “pollutants” as the term “pollutants” is defined in the Policy.

In June 2021, adding to Gold Coast’s problems the City of Jackson filed suit in the Circuit Court of Hinds County against Gold Coast and its principals alleging that Gold Coast dumped “high temperature and corrosive” industrial waste into the City’s sewer system.

Travelers denied coverage for defense or indemnity of the two suits and Travelers cited the Policy’s pollution exclusion as the basis for its denial of coverage.

Travelers filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment arguing that it had no duty to defend Gold Coast and its principals in the respective lawsuits and Gold Coast filed a Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings arguing that: (1) Travelers has the duty to defend Gold Coast and its principals in the respective lawsuits; and (2) Travelers has a duty to reimburse Gold Coast and its principals for their defense costs.

The district court denied Gold Coast’s Motions for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings and granted Travelers’ Motion for Partial Summary.

DISCUSSION

An insurance company’s duty to defend its insured is triggered when it becomes aware that a complaint has been filed which contains reasonable, plausible allegations of conduct covered by the policy. No duty to defend arises when the claims fall outside the policy’s coverage. Exclusionary clauses are strictly interpreted and the language within them must be clear and unmistakable.

The district court concluded that all the claims in the complaints were clearly and unambiguously excluded from coverage based on the Policy’s pollution exclusion.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that the language unambiguously excluded Gold Coast’s actions.

A substance is an irritant or contaminant at its core when no matter where it is, how it is contained, or whether it is in contact with something it is an irritant or contaminant. A substance can become an irritant or contaminant when it comes into contact with something and is actively irritating or contaminating it.

“The allegations in both the City of Brandon’s and the City of Jackson’s complaints present facts that are paradigmatic for the application of the Policy pollution exclusion.”

The deliberate discharge of toxic industrial waste is precisely the type of activity to which Traveler’s Policy pollution exclusion was intended to apply. There is not a reasonable interpretation of the wastewater’s form or qualities that would conclude that it was not an irritant or contaminant. Therefore, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the Policy is not ambiguous. Because the Policy is not ambiguous, the claims are excluded from coverage.

Gold Coast, therefore, did not sufficiently plead facts that trigger Traveler’s duty to defend and the District Court’s decision was affirmed.

ZALMA OPINION

The Fifth Circuit established one of the important reasons for exclusions in insurance policies like that issued to Gold Coast by the Travelers. Exclusion provisions are present to reveal to insureds that insurance coverage is limited and place the insured on notice about actions or omissions that will trigger an insurer’s denial of coverage. Insurance policies that include pollution exclusion provisions accomplish even more because they deter wrongful conduct. Gold Coast learned that lesson the hard way: it must pay for defense of the lawsuits and pay from its assets the tort damages.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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