The continuous trigger rule is well-known to those in the insurance industry. However, the scope of its application continues to evolve as new risks emerge. While the concept of continuous trigger generally came about to address long-tail environmental pollution and asbestos bodily injury claims, the courts that first implemented and adopted the rule were not facing claims based on sexual molestation, sports-related concussions, wrongful incarceration, large-scale construction defects, complex food recalls, etc.
Pennsylvania has long been a first manifestation state, meaning that only the policy on the risk when underlying bodily injury or property damage is first known or reasonably ascertainable must respond to a loss. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the continuous trigger rule in J.H. France, which involved coverage for asbestos bodily injury claims. J.H. France Refractories Co. v. Allstate Ins. Co., 626 A.2d 502 (Pa. 1993). The continuous trigger rule, over time, has also been applied to pollution cases.
For that reason, the industry took great interest in the St. John case, decided at the end of 2014, in which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected efforts by an insured to trigger four years of consecutive policies in connection with an underlying lawsuit alleging that the insured’s defective installation of a new plumbing system caused damage to a dairy farm. Pennsylvania Nat. Mut. Cas. Ins. Co. v. St. John, 106 A.3d 1 (Pa. 2014). Specifically, the insured installed the new plumbing system in 2003, the dairy farm’s cows suffered health problems and produced less milk starting in 2004, and the dairy farm owners discovered the cause – contaminated drinking water due to defects in the plumbing system – in 2006. The court ruled that the 2004 policy was the only triggered policy, but it made a few comments that raised eyebrows. The court noted that Pennsylvania follows the first manifestation rule, “with the lone exception of asbestos injury claims” and that “[o]ur holding in J.H. France remains an exception to the general rule under Pennsylvania jurisprudence that the first manifestation rule governs a trigger of coverage analysis for policies containing standard CGL language.”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s strict application of the manifestation trigger, and its characterization of the exception being limited to asbestos claims, caused a ripple effect in non-asbestos related coverage actions such as pollution cases involving damage that occurs across multiple policy periods. While experience thus far has shown that trial courts are hesitant to apply St. John to limit coverage for pollution claims to a single policy year, the issue is still lingering in many cases. St. John most recently surfaced in the Penn State coverage action related to underlying claims brought against the school by victims of convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky. There, a Philadelphia trial court judge ruled that a victim’s continued sexual abuse over time does not justify application of the continuous trigger rule, and that Penn State could only access the policy during which the bodily injury to a particular victim first manifested. Pa. State Univ. v. Pa. Manufacturers’ Ass’n Ins. Co., 2016 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 158 (May 4, 2016). Interestingly, the court stated that sexual abuse was different from “environmental pollution or asbestos coverage,” meaning that perhaps the court did not read St. John so literally.
Whether the court intended it or not, the sound bites in the St. John decision still have insurers and insureds paying close attention to the scope of the continuous trigger rule.