Product or Pollutant? You be the judge.

Posted on September 15, 2010 by Michael Rodburg

The unending war--or so it seems sometimes--between policyholders and insurers regarding coverage for "pollution" never ceases to reveal new ways at looking at the facts of American life. In the latest salvo, we find that what's good for rice farmers is bad for cotton farmers and therefore bad for those who help rice farmers.

 


In Scottsdale Insurance Co. v. Universal Crop Protection Alliance LLC, (8th Cir., No. 09-1774, September 8, 2010) the Eighth Circuit decided that a pollution exclusion clause in defendant's insurance policy barred coverage for its liability to cotton farmers adversely affected by a herbicide applied to rice farmers' fields.

 


The underlying suit was brought by a group of Arkansas cotton farmers against Universal Crop Protection Alliance LLC ("UCPA"), a member-owned cooperative and major purchaser, formulator and distributor of agriculture chemicals. A herbicide containing dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (i.e. 2,4 D), is beneficial in rice production and routinely applied to rice fields by spraying. Unfortunately, it was alleged, that herbicide destroys or seriously damages cotton crops. In Arkansas, the two crops are often grown in close proximity. In a suit commenced in federal court in the Eastern District of Arkansas in May 2007, a group of 80 Arkansas cotton farmers alleged that UCPA and four other herbicide manufacturers had allowed the rice field herbicide to drift off-target or, as later alleged, to re-loft from the fields to which they were applied, and drift onto their cotton fields thereby causing damage and destruction of their cotton crops. UCPA tendered the defense of the suit to its insurer, Scottsdale Insurance Co. The policy was a one year claims made policy that covered "physical injury to tangible property." The policy contained an exclusion from coverage for property damage that would not have occurred but for "the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of pollutants." "Pollutants" was defined as including "any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal . . . contaminant, including . . . chemicals." Scottsdale brought a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that it did not owe defense or indemnity for the underling suit by the cotton farmers against UCPA.

 


In March 2009, the district court granted the insurer's motion for summary judgment finding that the pollution exclusion clause barred coverage. On appeal, decided September 8, 2010, the Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding the pollution exclusion clause broad and unambiguous in the context of the case. Under either an off-target application or the later pleaded "relofting" theory, the insurer was relieved of coverage for the claim: "Neither theory 'arguably' falls outside the scope of exclusion."

 


The nearly metaphysical question which turns cases such as this one way or the other is when does a product become a pollutant? Would UCPA have been covered if a rice farmer also had cotton on the same farm? Or if the "customer" farmer claimed damage from the product to livestock that were inadvertently sprayed while grazing on the intended target field or ingested the herbicide while grazing nearby? Or, was the fact that the product "escaped" from its intended field of application to another's property enough to make it a pollutant once it went astray? Surprisingly, the insurance coverage question arises more frequently than one might expect, especially since the inception of the so-called "total" or "absolute" pollution exclusion clause. The Eighth Circuit opinion offers little guidance and less reasoning. Adopting a mechanical reading, the Court concluded that since 2,4 D was a toxic chemical and had "migrated," it was a pollutant and coverage was not available.

 


A far more satisfying approach--at least from a policyholder's perspective--is represented by the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision some five years ago in Nav-Its, Inc. v. Selective Insurance Co. of America, 869 A. 2d 929 (NJ 2005). There, a contractor was hired to paint and perform floor coating and sealing work in an office building. A building tenant claimed personal injury from exposure to the fumes. The insurer argued, similarly to Scottsdale that the pollution exclusion clause barred coverage as the claimed injury was the result of the release and consequent exposure to "pollutants," i.e. fumes. In holding for the insured, the New Jersey Supreme Court viewed its role as determining the underlying purpose for the exclusion, and concluded that product exposure of the type faced by the contractor was not "traditional" pollution. Painting and sealing fumes were a necessary consequence of handling the products and the damage they caused was within the coverage for products liability and completed operations.

 


Without belaboring the distinctions in the facts of these two cases, the point to be made is quite simple: All tangible products are composed of chemicals; they cause damage only when they come in contact with property or persons in a manner not intended by the original purpose for which they were made or used. If any such exposure automatically renders the product a pollutant, then coverage is illusory for a broad array of circumstances that are not "traditional" pollution in any sense of the word. Conversely, if the courts are inclined to examine policies for their "purpose" and "intent" from the perspective of the insured, they are far more likely to find coverage when the resulting exposure and harm is not "traditional" pollution.



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