Are Class Actions Appropriate for Pandemic-Related Commercial Insurance Claims?
Commercial litigation slowed to a crawl this spring after courts in New York and elsewhere went into varying degrees of lockdown, but as courts resume normal operations they will be confronted with the wave of litigation relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Insurance coverage litigation, in particular, has hardly been on a hiatus—numerous lawsuits over business interruption claims have been filed, and other insurance lines will also likely be drawn into pandemic-related litigation.
Recently filed insurance coverage lawsuits reveal a trend: A significant number of putative class actions filed by commercial insureds, often restaurants seeking coverage for revenue lost when government closure orders halted or curtailed their operations. In some actions, the plaintiffs purport to represent a nationwide class of all entities with business interruption claims under the same alleged “standard all-risk” commercial property insurance policy. One plaintiff seeks to represent all entities with policies issued by the same defendants, apparently without regard to policy terms. In others, the scope of the proposed class is more limited, though still ambitious—for instance, a statewide class of restaurants and bars allegedly insured under the same policy form.
Historically, class treatment has been sought on behalf of individual policyholders to address large numbers of small-value claims arising out of personal insurance lines. Even those actions have found varying degrees of success. Class actions involving commercial insurance coverage have been rare.
By all accounts, there will be numerous disputed insurance claims for lost business income relating to the pandemic. But are class actions the right mechanism to resolve large numbers of commercial insurance disputes, even where claims involve the same kinds of losses under the same or similar policy language?
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