In W.L. Petrey Wholesale Co., Inc. v. Great American Insurance Company, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama granted summary judgment dismissing a claim under Great American’s Employee Dishonesty coverage. The Court held that the Inventory Shortages exclusion applied to the loss, notwithstanding that the insured (“Petrey”) had been indemnified by the same insurer in respect of a (superficially) similar claim two years before. The decision provides a useful illustration of the types of claims which will, and will not, fall within inventory exclusions.

The Facts

There are two relevant losses, both involving tens of thousands of missing “5-Hour Energy” drinks. Petrey was a wholesaler of 5-Hour Energy drinks and employed salespeople to deliver the product along prescribed delivery routes in trucks provided by Petrey. Petrey also leased storage units to individual salespeople. The salespeople would order the product based on customer demand, deliver it, and then account for the deliveries by entering the relevant data in Petrey’s computer system. Petrey would conduct a physical inventory of each salesperson’s truck and storage facility at least twice a year.

First Claim: McKean

Petrey contracted McKean as a salesperson in 2010. On June 6, 2011, shortly before a scheduled physical inventory was to have taken place, McKean abandoned his truck and his job. When McKean’s supervisor was unable to track him down, the supervisor then inventoried McKean’s truck and storage unit, and noted an apparent shortage. This led to Petrey performing a complete reconstruction of all transactions, which confirmed the shortage. Petrey then wrote to McKean about the shortage. In response, McKean denied stealing the product, but did not provide any explanation as to what had happened to them.

Petrey submitted a claim to Great American alleging that McKean had stolen the product. Once Great American confirmed that (i) McKean was the only individual with access to the product at the relevant times; and, (ii) McKean had not provided any alternate explanation when directly accused, Great American agreed to indemnify Petrey. Great American based its quantum calculations on inventory records and sales calculations.

Second Claim: Bree

Petrey contracted Bree as a salesperson in 2007. On May 24, 2013, Bree was terminated by Petrey after one of Petrey’s customers requested that Bree no longer deliver to its store. At that time, Petrey recovered its delivery truck and contents from Bree, and changed the locks on the storage unit that it had leased to Bree. On June 26, 2013, a Petrey manager noted that the inventory numbers for Bree’s route seemed exceptionally high. The manager ordered an audit and physical inventory, and discovered an apparent shortage of 82,510 drinks. Petrey attempted to locate Bree, without success.

 The Inventory Shortages Exclusion

Petrey submitted a claim to Great American alleging that Bree had stolen the product. Great American denied the claim on the basis of the policy’s Inventory Shortages exclusion, which provided that:

We will not pay for loss as specified below: …

Loss, or that part of any loss, the proof of which as to its existence or amount is dependent upon:

  1. an inventory computation; or
  2. a profit and loss computation.

Petrey’s proof of loss with respect to Bree was based entirely on its audit and inventory records and calculations. Unlike with its claim in respect of McKean, Petrey did not provide evidence that Bree was the only individual with access to the product at the relevant times, or any other evidence that linked Bree to the inventory shortage.

In response to Great American’s summary judgment motion, Petrey provided affidavit evidence from its CFO, who asserted that “the proof of the existence of the loss is the missing items themselves.” The Court noted that there was no basis for this assertion, other than the inventory calculations. As such, there was no basis to conclude that there had been a loss due to employee dishonesty or, for that matter, that there had been any loss at all:

evidence suggesting that only [Petrey]’s employees could have been responsible for the disappearance of inventory in Bree’s care is not independent evidence of a loss due to dishonesty or theft. The existence of the loss is presupposed on the basis of inventory records alone, and the manner of the loss, if one existed, is a matter of speculation. Even if [Petrey]’s employees were the only ones who could have stolen Bree’s inventory, there is no evidence, apart from inventory calculations, that any inventory was in fact stolen by anybody. Moreover, there is no independent evidence that employee dishonesty was responsible for any loss of inventory, rather than, for example (among a number of possibilities), employee negligence in following company policies for securing the goods. [emphasis added]

The Court rejected Petrey’s argument that applying the Inventory Shortages exclusion in this manner rendered coverage illusory:

the purpose of the inventory shortage exclusion is widely recognized not (as Petrey Wholesale contends) to serve as a surreptitious and complete contradiction of the coverage provided in employee dishonesty policies, but to protect insurers from the dangers of negligence, bookkeeping errors, waste, inexactness [or] pilferage by nonemployees …

The Court noted that insureds could provide appropriate corroborating evidence in several ways:

  • security camera footage;
  • evidence that an employee destroyed records and abandoned his job when he became aware that a theft was about to be discovered;
  • eyewitness statements that an employee removed items from a warehouse;
  • confessions of dishonest employees;
  • evidence that a dishonest employee sold the items for personal gain; and,
  • records of deliveries of items that were never, in fact, delivered.

Conclusion

W.L. Petrey Wholesale provides guidance as to when the inventory exclusion will apply, and when it will not. The Court accepted that there must be some independent corroborating evidence of employee dishonesty in order for an insured to rely on its inventory records or computations as (partial) proof of a covered loss. The Court also endorsed Great American’s position with respect to the underlying purpose of its Inventory Shortages exclusion, affirming that the point of the exclusion is not to render coverage “illusory”, but rather to safeguard the fidelity insurer’s legitimate interest in not paying claims arising from theft by non-employees (which can be insured against under other forms of coverage) or from the insured’s own negligence or poor record-keeping.

W.L. Petrey Wholesale Co., Inc. v. Great American Insurance Company, 2015 WL 404523 (M.D. Ala.)