A Nicely Supported Overview of Global Warming Litigation and its Impact on Insurers
Well now, I think this is exactly what I said in this post here, as well as elsewhere on this blog in the past. Global warming litigation is heating up (pretty funny pun, huh?), litigation costs from the defense of those cases pose a significant threat to the insurance industry, and insurance coverage litigation to sort out coverage for those costs is bound to follow on the heels of such global warming cases. This story that popped up in my in-box today does, however, provide the most systematic overview of these points that I have seen to date. It’s a particularly provocative read right now, as I look out my window here in Boston at temperatures in the mid-forties and sunshine, even though its still just the beginning of March.
How Will Climate Change Affect LTD Carriers?
Who knows? The only link between the two subjects that I know of right now is that this blog post is going to touch on both issues.
There are a couple of stories I thought I would pass along today that may be worth reading. In the first, here, I am quoted on climate change litigation and the potential costs to the insurance industry. Personally, I am hard pressed, as a litigator who spends a lot of time dealing with issues related to the admissibility of expert testimony under the current federal court structure, to imagine plaintiffs who are pressing a climate change case ever being able to prove causation, or, for that matter, even being able to submit expert testimony to prove causation. Take one particular hypothetical case, a claim that in essence pollution increased the ocean level and is responsible for some particular piece of coastal property damage. How would you ever prove causation in a federal court between the pollution and the rise in the water level, given the strict standards for admitting expert testimony under current federal law? Or for that matter, even if you could prove that element, how would you ever prove one particular defendant’s factory - or even those of an entire particular industry - was the cause, as opposed to hundreds of millions of automobiles or a million factories in China, just to give two examples? I don’t see the current state of the scientific research being sufficient for a court to allow experts to testify to the elements of causation needed to recover on these types of claims. That said, though, I also don’t think much of the theories used to recover the GNP of a mid-size country from the tobacco industry, but all that took was a couple of courts to give credence to such theories, and you know how that ended up after that. All it would take is one judge somewhere to allow plaintiffs to go forward on these types of claims, and industry - and quickly their insurers - will end up, at a minimum, footing the bill for very large defense costs in response to such cases.
The second story, here, I pass along just because it is fascinating, to anyone who handles long term disability cases or likes statistics, or both. Who knew doctors claimed long term disability at a disproportionate rate?
A Break from LaRue: Anticipating Insurance Coverage Disputes Over Climate Change Exposures
Permalink | Can’t do LaRue all the time, every post, although, frankly, the more one thinks about the Supreme Court’s three opinions, the more one can come up with to talk about. I will return to various issues raised by the opinion here and there, as time and interest allows. For now, though, I think I owe some posts that can be attributed to the insurance litigation side of this blog’s title to readers who are interested in that topic, and I have been thinking - when not obsessing over whether individuals can sue for mistakes in their 401(k) plans, that is - about all the legal seminars and publications that have been showing up in my in-box lately anticipating insurance coverage litigation over climate change issues. One of the interesting things about these is that they are showing up in droves now, long before suits seeking to recover for climate change losses have even been pursued. As I have said before on these electronic pages, insurance is the real leading edge indicator for a lot of issues, and one of them is climate change; the insurance industry will be one of the first to be heavily impacted by increased climate related losses, through its coverage of property and liability risks, and will, concomitantly, be one of the first to take concrete business steps in response to global warming. This early media drumbeat over insurance coverage issues related to climate change litigation reflects an eternal truth: that any possible new area of business liability, such as over climate change, will simultaneously spawn a cottage industry in representing businesses against insurers over those new liabilities. On a more substantive note, the particularly interesting thing to me about the seminars I am seeing is that these educational materials present the issue as essentially an extension into the climate change area of the legal developments generated during the last broadly contested, high stakes area of coverage disputes, namely environmental losses related to Superfund and other environmental liabilities. It’s a logical step, if one thinks about it: the environmental coverage disputes revolved primarily around the environmental impacts of the dumping of pollutants, and the new climate change issues will also concern environmental impacts, only in this instance ones that stem from the global warming impacts of certain business practices. The earlier environmental coverage rulings issued primarily in the late eighties and early nineties are thus a natural base on which to analyze the insurance coverage issues raised by climate change liabilities. In a way, it even fits the historical development of insurance coverage law. The environmental coverage litigation really expanded from, and built upon, the mass tort coverage disputes of asbestos, most concretely in the extension of trigger of coverage issues decided in that earlier context into the environmental pollution context; it only makes sense that the same historical evolution would continue into the next “hot” (pun intended) realm of insurance coverage litigation, in this instance by taking coverage decisions related to environmental polluting and rejiggering them to apply to climate change exposures.
Is It Just Plain Rational for Insurers to Pull Back from Coastal Markets?
Permalink | Anyone interested in the topics of this blog is probably familiar with the media coverage of homeowners insurers raising rates and/or simply withdrawing from writing homeowners insurance in coastal regions, including not just in the traditional hurricane regions of the south but up through New England as well. Many stories are replete with sturm und drang about the issue, ranging from political criticism of insurers to questioning of the companies’ motives. Studies like this one here, however, suggest that it is instead entirely rational for insurers, who should have a long term perspective in mind, to substantially reduce their exposure to coastal risks. The long term potential loss exposure in those markets is clearly growing exponentially, and it would be fundamentally irrational for insurers not to recognize and respond to it.
I have written before about the idea of insurance and insurers as leading indicators, and that is what you are seeing in this scenario as well. If insurers are unwilling to expose themselves to the increasing risk posed by coastal development in the era of global warming, then it may be that they are on to something, and the political sturm und drang should be directed at ameliorating the risks they are forecasting and trying to avoid, rather than at them for doing so.
Is Global Warming A Horror Movie Waiting to Happen for the Insurance Industry?
Permalink | My colleague, computer patent guru Robert Plotkin, once referred to insurance as a leading indicator when it comes to the issue of global warming, and I have talked before about the idea that governments and societies will act to curb global warming and to deal with related problems only when we reach the point that these problems pose severe economic problems for major sectors of the economy. I have written before about how truly fundamental this issue is, in particular, for the insurance industry, and about the fact that changes in insurance coverage are likely to be the first major noticeable economic response to the issues posed by global warming.
Now, I recognize that sounds like the sonorous introduction to some Ken Burns special on PBS, but it’s a hard topic to delve into while maintaining a warm and good natured tone. And the reason for that is laid out right here, in this fascinating opinion piece from the Washington Post on the response and thinking of leading elements of the insurance industry, including Lloyd’s, to global warming. The article lays out both the risks to the industry posed by climate change (risks the article describes as going right to the question of the sustainability of large sectors of the insurance industry) and the insurance industry’s response to the problem, which is to call - out of its own self-interest - for governments to address and remediate the problem.
You can get a pretty good flavor for what the article presents as the industry’s perspective on the problem right here, in this quote from the article:
Ten years ago, Peter Levene, chairman of Lloyds of London, was skeptical about global warming theories, but no longer. He believes carbon emissions caused by human activity are warming the Earth and causing severe weather-related events. "At Lloyds, we feel the effects of extreme weather more than most," he said in a March speech. "We don't just live with risk -- we have to pick up the pieces afterwards." Lloyds predicts that the United States will be hit by a hurricane causing $100 billion worth of damage, more than double that of Katrina. Industry analysts estimate that such an event would bankrupt as many as 40 insurers. Lloyd's has warned: "The insurance industry must start actively adjusting in response to greenhouse gas trends if it is to survive."
Pretty much what I said here, but I have to admit, the thought’s much more sobering coming from Mr. Levene than coming from a blog post.
Climate Change Litigation and the Insurance Industry
Permalink | Well now, we talked recently about how plaintiffs’ lawyers chasing fiduciaries appear likely to help drive changes in how fiduciaries of pension and defined contribution plans operate. Are we going to see the same with alternative energy companies and how businesses operate with regard to climate change issues? I have talked before about how climate change, in my view, will be successfully addressed if profits and losses - and those include liability exposures - drive companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and otherwise reduce their impact on the environment; as I wrote previously, the problems can be addressed if we create a business environment in which the winners are those who target these problems, and the losers are those who do not.
This article here, from the Dallas Morning News, and this blog post on it from the WSJ Law Blog point out that the lawyers are lining up to both sue and defend companies over climate change liabilities and exposures. Liability exposures are the kinds of costs of doing business that companies can be expected to want to avoid, and thus the rise of this area of the bar may well be a harbinger - much like the proverbial canary in a coal mine - of a further impetus on the part of the manufacturing and energy industries to reduce their contribution to global warming. Beyond that, the story told in that article and blog post emphasize a point I made in my earlier post on alternative energy issues and the insurance industry - that this is a liability issue, and as such, is by definition a serious threat and risk to the insurance industry, one that it needs to anticipate and account for in advance, rather than be gobsmacked after the fact like it was by long tail environmental and asbestos exposures.
More Recommended Reading: The Cavalcade of Risk
Permalink | The Cavalcade of Risk: 1st Anniversary Edition, is now up at Insure Blog. Noting that “it was a year ago this week that we published the first Cav,” Insure Blog explains that the Cav is intended as a round up “of interesting/unusual risk-related posts from around the blogosphere.” One of my posts is up on the Cavalcade, but perhaps of more interest to those of you who already read my posts, so are a number of other, interesting posts on insurance, employee benefit, and pension issues from some of my favorite bloggers. I recommend you take a quick gander, and hope you enjoy it.
Alternative Energy, Insurance and Economic Forces
Permalink | This article on an upcoming law review study on the role, effect and potential liability exposure of the insurance industry with regard to climate change provides the perfect opportunity for me to branch out into a new line of discussion on this blog on another issue that is of professional and intellectual interest to me, alternative energy and the climate change debate. To be more precise, what has long interested me about this subject isn’t the doom and gloom sci-fi stuff, but the more prosaic question of the economic and marketplace realities and the myriad ways in which they interact with the need to reduce both oil dependency and greenhouse gas emissions. It seems to me that the profit motive is the real stick that will drive the changes needed to solve this problem and that the marketplace will pick what companies will win and what ones will lose as a result of this environmental issue. A simple example: as gas prices continue to move up, and as Toyota expands availability and lowers the cost of its hybrid engines, competitors who fall too far behind in the race to put oil efficient engines in their cars - anyone in Detroit listening? - will inevitably lose ever more market share to Toyota. It is a safe bet that oil usage per car in first world economies will inevitably decline, simply driven by gasoline pricing and the decisions of millions of individual consumers to avoid overpaying at the pump, and the companies who can cater to that dynamic will win in the marketplace, to their benefit as well as to that of the environment.
But this dynamic doesn’t have to be driven by pure marketplace forces alone. Instead, government tax and regulatory policies can goose those marketplace incentives significantly, prodding automobile companies to win the race against their competitors to produce the most gas efficient autos possible while simultaneously encouraging consumers to punish companies that fail to do so out of their own self-interest in avoiding high gasoline prices. That, in essence, is the point of this recent op-ed piece by the good folks at MIT.
And this article on the role of the insurance industry in climate change can be understood as making the same macro point - that climate change is an economic issue, and how the problem plays out depends on how those economic actors most affected by it respond to it. And for those of you who might be inclined to downplay the extent to which climate change will impact this industry, British insurance blogger ReRisk had this terrific post some time back, illustrating the property damage in the London market should sea levels rise over time. As he points out, will insurers actually continue to provide property coverage long term in such threatened areas? And if so, should forecasts of rising sea levels bear out, just imagine the loss payouts by the insurance industry.