Federal Judge Rules Pollution Exclusion Ambiguous; Orders Insurers To Defend School District In Copper/Lead Class Action

copperpipe

Pittsburgh, June 9 – A U.S. District Judge in Pittsburgh has granted a motion for judgment on the pleadings in favor of a school district, ordering a primary and excess insurer to defend the district in a pollution class action case.  In The Netherlands Ins. Co., et. al. v. Butler School District, et. al., U.S District Judge Arthur Schwab interepreted pollution exclusions in the involved insurance policies as ambiguous because they did not specifically exclude pollution claims arising out of copper becoming “bioavailable.”

The school district had a  general liability policy issued by Netherlands and an umbrella policy written by Peerless.  The insurers sought a declaratory judgment in the Western District of Pa. that they had no duty to defend the district because the claims were within exclusions for “pollutants” and lead exposure.

Judge Schwab ruled that both The Netherlands Insurance Co. and Peerless Insurance Co. had to defend Butler Area School District and a prior superintendent, Dale Lumley,  from parents’ claims against the district for concealing hazardous levels of lead and copper in one of the district’s elementary schools.  The Court found the insurance policies’ general pollution exclusions were ambiguous enough to allow coverage and that the specific lead poisoning exclusions did not specifically reference copper.

In ruling on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Schwab looked to prior decisions in lead paint cases which held that exclusions “arising out of the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of ‘pollutants,’” did not sufficiently address the gradual chemical process by which the paint caused lead poisoning.

“These findings are similar to the facts, as here, where lead and copper are essentially components of the water system at Summit Elementary, which have degraded over time, thereby allegedly rendering the lead and copper bioavailable.”

The judge also held that without a specific copper exclusion, the insurers were bound  to provide a defense in the underlying case, as there has been no factual decisions made as to whether the alleged injuries were caused by the lead, copper or both.  He also ruled that the duty to indemnify would have to await those factual determinations in the underlying case.

Judge Schwab emphasized the bedrock premise that the duty to defend was broader than the duty to indemnify, and then concluded:

“The court will not countenance the insurers’ invitation to turn Pennsylvania law relative to the duty to defend on its head, so as to allow the potential exclusion of a single type of claim to relieve them of their duty to defend, when the law actually requires a defense when a single potentially covered claim is alleged.”

The Netherlands Ins. Co., et. al. v. Butler School District, et. al., (W.D. Pa., June 9, 2017)(Schwab, J.)

 

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Author: CJ Haddick

C.J. Haddick is a Director with the law firm of Dickie, McCamey, & Chilcote, PC, based in Pittsburgh, Pa. He has advised and represented insurers in insurance coverage and bad faith litigation for more than a quarter of a century, and written and spoken throughout the United States on insurance coverage and bad faith prevention and litigation. He is Managing Director of the firm's Harrisburg, Pa. office. Reach him at chaddick@dmclaw.com or 717-731-4800.

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