In general, a pollution exclusion precludes coverage for liabilities arising from the “discharge, dispersal, release or escape” of “irritants, contaminants or pollutants.” The exclusion was incorporated in commercial general liability (CGL) insurance policies in response to the massive environmental liabilities incurred by companies in the 70’s and 80’s.
And the exclusion has been effective, by in large, in precluding coverage for liabilities that are the result of traditional environmental contamination. But, for some insurers, that was not enough. These insurers argued that the pollution exclusion leaches out in new directions, applying not only to traditional environmental contamination, but extending to apply in new, non-pollution contexts as well.
For example, in Andersen v. Highland House Co., 93 Ohio St. 3d 547, 757 N.E.2d 329 (2001), the insurers relied on the pollution exclusion to deny a claim based on carbon monoxide poisoning in an apartment—hardly the sort of widespread environmental damage first envisioned by the pollution exclusion. The insurer nonetheless argued that the pollution exclusion applied because carbon monoxide was a “pollutant,” which the policy defined as “any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste.” Id. at 548. The Ohio Supreme Court, however, disagreed, holding that the pollution exclusion would not apply because it did not “specifically, and unambiguously state that coverage for residential carbon monoxide poisoning is excluded.” Id. at 548. According to the Court, the pollution exclusion was limited to situations involving “traditional environmental contamination.” Id. at 552.
While insurers have been rebuffed in their efforts to expand the scope of the pollution exclusion in Ohio, in other states, they continue to push at the edges of the pollution exclusion, hoping to spread its reach past the confines of traditional environmental contamination. But, in two recent cases—from Washington and Connecticut—the courts rightly halted the insurer’s attempts to expand the exclusion.
The recent decision from Washington’s Supreme Court, in Zhaoyun Xia v. ProBuilders Specialty Ins. Co. RRG, 393 P.3d 748, 750 (Wash. 2017), mirrors Andersen in the facts, and reaches the same conclusion, but by a slightly different route. The underlying claim in Xia was based on the “negligent installation of a hot water heater that led to the release of toxic levels of carbon monoxide in a residential home.” The insurer denied the claim based on the pollution exclusion.
In interpreting the pollution exclusion, the Xia court, similar to the Andersen court, recognized that the pollution exclusion should only apply when the underlying cause of alleged liability “stems from either a traditional environmental harm or a pollutant acting as a pollutant.” Id. at 753. Unlike the Andersen court, however, the Xia court found that the carbon monoxide poisoning could be characterized as pollution. Still, the Xia court found that the insurer’s interpretation of the pollution exclusion violated Washington’s efficient proximate cause rule. Under that rule, a loss is covered, even if there are uncovered events within the causal chain leading to that loss, so long as the initial event—or the “efficient proximate cause”—is a covered peril. In Xia, the court found that the efficient proximate cause of the loss was the negligent installation of the hot water heater, which was covered. Accordingly, the pollution exclusion did not apply.
In Connecticut, likewise, an appellate court addressed a case where the insurer was arguing for an expansive version of the pollution exclusion. In R.T. Vanderbilt Co., Inc. v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 156 A.3d 539 (Conn. App. 2017), the policyholder was accused of mining and selling industrial talc that contained asbestos, which allegedly injured a host of claimants. The policyholder submitted a claim based on the lawsuits to its insurers, which denied the claims, in part, based on the pollution exclusion. The Connecticut appellate court disagreed with the insurers’ interpretation of the exclusion after an exacting review of the policy language. According to the court, the “policy language, when read as a whole, is intended to exclude coverage only for traditional environmental pollution, such as the intentional disposal or negligent release of industrial and other hazardous waste into the public air, land, or water resources.” Id. at 638. Since talc mining didn’t count as traditional environmental pollution, the court held that the pollution exclusion did not apply.
These two cases, and many others like them, should give insurers pause when they argue for a broad application of the pollution exclusion in non-traditional settings. Even if the terms in the pollution exclusion, standing alone, may seem broad enough to encompass ever new risks, the courts have rightly decided that they will not read the terms of the pollution exclusion standing alone. Rather, courts will continue their long-standing practice of interpreting the pollution exclusion solely within the limited context in which it was written. It’s tradition.