Matthew R. Divelbiss and Peter D. Laun | Jones Day
With election season dominating the news cycle, it’s easy to miss the headlines from California and other Western states. “Record Wildfires on the West Coast Are Capping a Disastrous Decade.” “Global warming driving California wildfire trends – study.” “As wildfires rage, climate experts warn: The future we were worried about is here.” And the issue is not limited to the West: “Climate change could shift Pennsylvania’s wildfire season.”
But even before this record-breaking fire season (which is still underway), there was an ominous warning for policyholders: “As Wildfires Get Worse, Insurers Pull Back From Riskiest Areas.” That pullback includes attempts to restrict coverage under commercial general liability (“CGL”) policies, a central part of most companies’ insurance and risk management programs.
CGL policies provide coverage when a policyholder accidentally causes bodily injury or property damage to a third party. Simply put, if a policyholder accidentally starts a fire that burns down someone’s house, the policyholder would look to its CGL insurer for coverage. But the new concern is that an accidental fire burns thousands of homes and businesses.
Insurers are running from that risk in the form of “wildfire” exclusions, added as endorsements to both primary and excess CGL policies. For example, one exclusion filed with an insurance commissioner intended for use in policies issued to energy companies states: “This policy does not apply to damages, losses, costs, or expenses arising out of, resulting from or in connection with ‘wildfire’ or ‘wildfire injury’, including any cost the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as reimbursement for fighting, suppressing or bringing under control any ‘wildfire’.”
Here are three issues to think about when faced with a wildfire exclusion:
1. What is your company’s wildfire risk? Insurers are concerned about both products and operations. Do you sell products that could start a wildfire, including products that may be installed in locations that present wildfire risk? Do you perform work (such as power line or pipeline maintenance, railroad maintenance, energy development, or construction) that could somehow cause a wildfire? If a policyholder has limited risk, it may be able to negotiate to remove the exclusion. But if a policyholder’s activities pose risk, getting rid of the exclusion may be difficult. In such a circumstance, the policyholder may need to look to other insurers or insurance markets to obtain coverage, or may have to accept high deductibles and/or sublimated wildfire coverage. Alternatively, companies may need to consider more creative methods of providing for this risk, such as captives. Ultimately, policyholders may need to join together to demand federal and/or state legislative solutions to this problem.
2. Even if your company is stuck with the exclusion, should the exclusion be clarified? As written, the exclusion above purports to apply to any losses “in connection with” a wildfire. Insurers will argue that this is very broad. For example, if a policyholder were sued because its product failed while being used to fight a wildfire, the insurers may point to “in connection with” to deny coverage. Policyholders should negotiate with their insurers to clarify any exclusion and leave no doubt that any exclusion is limited to circumstances where the policyholder is allegedly responsible for causing a wildfire. That’s the risk insurers are trying to avoid.
3. What about contractual obligations to provide wildfire insurance? Many contracts—for example, for companies that provide right-of-way services to utilities—require that the contractor maintain insurance against wildfires. Whether you’re the “contractor” or the “utility” in this or any analogous scenario, the lack of wildfire insurance presents a problem. For the “contractor,” it could be in breach of its contractual obligations if it cannot provide the agreed upon insurance. For the “utility,” it may not have the financial protection it is counting on the contractor to provide in the event of a wildfire, but the contractor’s work may very well be key to limiting wildfire risk. In such circumstances, the parties will need to work cooperatively to find a solution that protects both parties.
Insurance issues surrounding wildfires will continue to evolve in the years ahead. As they undoubtedly arise in future policy renewals, policyholders should look to their coverage counsel and brokers to navigate this area and make sure that wildfire exclusions, if they can’t be avoided, are both clear and limited.