Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, establishments with business interruption insurance may have purchased an all-risks policy. These are insurance policies that cover all perils except for ones that are explicitly mentioned in the contract.
The perils that are covered typically amount to some sort of physical damage such as fire, flooding, or unexpected repairs.
For businesses that have suffered losses from COVID-19 and are looking to their insurance policy for coverage, we anticipate that one of the most challenging issues is whether a pandemic or disease amounts to physical damage.
MDS Inc. is a company that buys and sells radioisotopes. One of its suppliers produced these isotopes at a nuclear plant in Ontario. In May 2009, a power shutdown occurred at the plant, and a leak of radioactive heavy water was identified. This leak did not cause any physical damage and the nuclear plant was still feasibly operational.
As a matter of proper protocol, the leak was reported to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, which then ordered the plant to be shut down for investigation, inspection, and possible repair. The closure lasted 15 months, and no radioisotopes were produced/supplied to MDS Inc. during that time.
MDS Inc. had purchased an all-risk commercial insurance policy from Factory Mutual.
In deciding whether MDS Inc.’s losses should be insured, the court first looked at the principles of “all-risk” insurance policies.
All-risks policies, such as the policy in this case, are generally understood to protect against fortuitous losses, unless such losses are otherwise excluded, the court ruled.
The language of the policy should also be reviewed for its clarity, meaning and reasonable expectations of the parties involved.
The court then reviewed the wording in MDS Inc.’s policy, which states that corrosion was one of the perils excluded. However, if there was physical damage, this exclusion would not apply, and coverage will be provided.
In analyzing this specific provision, the court first looked at the meaning of “physical damage”. It was noted that this term was not specifically defined in the actual policy, nor is there a widely accepted legal definition.
Factory Mutual argued that a narrow interpretation should be applied as the leakage did not cause any tangible physical damage. While MDS Inc. argued that the presence of the leak itself is physical damage as it led to the plant’s shutdown.
In deciding this issue, the court looked at the purposes of an all-risk insurance policy, and analyzed the intent and expectations of the parties when entering into the agreement. The court also looked at other provisions within the policy and how they relate to one another in determining “physical damage”.
Ultimately, the court held that a broad interpretation should be applied and that the loss of use stemming from the shutdown was “physical damage”. MDS Inc. was covered by insurance and should be indemnified for their losses.
We anticipate the narrow, broad interpretation of “physical damage” will arise in future business interruption claims. Insurers will state that COVID-19 did not cause any tangible damage while businesses will argue that the disease caused an interruption that created a loss of use.
The ruling in MDS does not mean that every all-risk insurance policy should be interpreted broadly. Each policy is different in terms of their scope, coverage, and expectations. MDS demonstrates that when interpreting policies, not only is the wording analyzed, but also the parties’ intent as to what will be insured. Insurance policies can be complex and difficult to understand.
Many businesses have been forced to close, limit their hours, or reduce their capacity. Despite a vaccine, the economic impact will likely continue, particularly in the face of new strains of the virus.
On January 28, 2021, the Ontario Superior Court addressed “inadequacies in current legal responses to internet defamation and harassment” by creating a new tort of internet harassment and cyber bullying.
While the global pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, the Court is embracing these changes and the legal community is using the tools available to move matters through the court system despite challenges.