In 2010, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued its decision in Barney Greengrass, Inc. v. Lumbermans Mut. Cas. Co., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76781 (S.D.N.Y. July 27, 2010), a case addressing whether the pollution exclusion applied to restaurant odors. The insured, Barney Greengrass (also known as the Sturgeon King), is a well-known delicatessen and fish purveyor located on New York’s Upper West Side. It was sued by a residential tenant in the same building who claimed that the odors emanating from the restaurant were a nuisance. Barney Greengrass’ commercial general liability insurer denied coverage on the basis of its policy’s pollution exclusion.
In a particularly cheeky written opinion, the district court rejected the insurer’s contention that restaurant odors constitute a pollutant for the purpose of the exclusion, explaining that:
To read "pollution" as encompassing "restaurant odors," as defendant urges here, would contradict "common speech" and the "reasonable expectations of a businessperson," who has come to understand standard pollution exclusions as addressing environmental-type harms … Defendant's suggested interpretation of the exclusion is unreasonable because it would mean that plaintiff, the "Sturgeon King," procured liability insurance for its business while at the same time agreeing to exclude coverage for all "losses" caused by a byproduct integral to that business: the aromas which many people (other than Mr. Bohn, of course) apparently find quite pleasant. See Curt Gathje & Carol Diuguid, eds., ZAGAT: NEW YORK CITY RESTAURANTS 2009, Barney Greengrass, at 49 ("The smells alone are worth the price of admission."). We reject that interpretation, which "would infinitely enlarge the scope of the term 'pollutants.'" … Indeed, while the quality of plaintiff's restaurant smells may be in the nose of the beholder, 9 defendant's "pollution" argument -- as addressed to the odors here -- is malodorous to this Court.
In reaching its decision, the court distinguished other New York cases holding that odors can constitute a pollutant for the purpose of the pollution exclusion (Town of Harrison v. Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, 653 N.Y.S.2d 75 (N.Y. 1996); Tri-Municipal Sewer Commission v. Continental Ins. Co., 636 N.Y.S.2d 856, 857 (N.Y. 2d Dep't 1996), explaining that those cases concerned odors from industrial facilities and thus involved traditional environmental pollution. By contrast, noted the court, restaurant odors cannot be considered traditional environmental pollution.
In an opinion dated November 4, 2011, a three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. See Barney Greengrass, Inc. v. Lumbermens Mut. Cas. Co., 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 22442 (2d Cir. Nov. 4, 2011). The court rejected Lumbermens’ argument on appeal that fumes, as used in the policy definition of “pollutants,” should be interpreted to include odors. The court explained that Lumbermens could have worded the policy language to include a specific definition of fumes, or could have included odors within the broader definition of “pollutants,” but elected not to. The court further noted that under New York law, the terms used in the definition of “pollutants” (i.e., smoke, vapors, soot, fumes, acids, etc.) have been construed to mean industrial pollution. As such, the court agreed that odors from industrial facilities, such as was the case in Town of Harrison and Tri-Municipal Sewer Commission, fall within the pollution exclusion, whereas restaurant odors do not.
Coincidentally, Barney Greengrass is not the only federal circuit decision in 2011 to address whether the pollution exclusion applies to restaurant odors. In Maxine Furs, Inc. v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 6706 (11th Cir. March 31, 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, applying Alabama law, held that the pollution exclusion applied to the emanation of curry odors from an Indian food restaurant. Under Alabama law, however, unlike New York law, the pollution exclusion is broadly construed to apply to matters not considered traditional environmental pollution.