On April 20, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed an Alabama district court decision finding that an “absolute pollution exclusion” did not bar coverage for environmental property damage and injuries from a sewage leak. Evanston Ins. Co. v. J&J Cable Constr., LLC, No. 17-11188, 2018 WL 1887459, (11th Cir. Apr. 20, 2018).

J&J Cable was hired to install underground electrical conduit in a subdivision when it struck and broke the sewer pipe to two homes. As a result, sewage backed up into the homes causing property damage and personal injuries. The commercial general liability policy at issue contained an “absolute pollution exclusion,” which sought to bar coverage for “bodily injury” and “property damage” arising out of the actual, alleged, or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of “any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste.” The insurer relied on an earlier Alabama federal district court decision, which precluded coverage for liability from lead paint exposure, concluding that lead was a pollutant under a similar exclusion. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, recognizing that insurance is a state law issue and opting instead to rely on binding state court precedent. The Eleventh Circuit, therefore, found that the decision in U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Armstrong, 479 So. 2d 1164 (Ala. 1985), by the state’s highest court, the Alabama Supreme Court, governed. That case made a distinction between industrial waste and residential sewage. Accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit found that the “absolute pollution exclusion” did not preclude coverage for liability for injuries caused by sewage.

The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is another reminder that courts often limit pollution exclusions to “true industrial pollution.” Accordingly, policyholders should challenge insurer efforts to invoke a pollution exclusion outside the context of industrial waste disposal and other forms of damage that constitute true industrial pollution. Policyholders also should consult with advisers to determine how the law of the relevant state or states treats such exclusions. Policyholders concerned about exposure for significant industrial pollution damage should consider obtaining a pollution liability policy that provides third-party coverage for bodily injury, property damage, defense, cleanup, and related defense costs as a result of pollution conditions.