Covid-19 and Business Interruption Policies- Courts Are Expected to Be Called into Action Soon

More than 300 small and medium sized businesses have formed an action group (Hiscox Action Group) with a view to bringing a class action against Hiscox’s decision to refuse payment under its commercial business interruption policies. It now looks like the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) will also be involved in the ongoing debate by seeking clarity from the courts about whether the wording of some business interruption insurance policies should provide cover as a result of the pandemic. Although this particular class action might involve Hiscox, there is no doubt that other insurers, such as AXA, Allianz, RSA, QBE and Zurich, might face potential multi-million pound lawsuits from businesses such as hotels, pubs, restaurants and leisure groups that allege legitimate business interruption claims have been rejected by their insurers.

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The legal issue at stake here is a matter of construing the scope of such policies. Several assureds claim that their policies specifically provide cover for the “inability to use the insured premises due to restrictions imposed by a public authority following an occurrence of any human infectious or human contagious disease.” However, Hiscox and other insurers are arguing that cover is only available under such policies if “there is an incident within a mile radius of the insured building” and therefore unless the businesses are closed by authorities due to outbreak of the disease at the premises, the relevant business interruption policy will not respond.

On several occasions, courts have adopted purposive interpretation techniques when construing terms in commercial contracts. Lord Clarke, famously, in Rainy Sky S.A. and others v. Kookmin Bank [2011] UKSC 50 stipulated [at 14]: “The ultimate aim of interpreting a provision in a contract, especially a commercial contract, is to determine what the parties meant by the language used, which involves ascertaining what a reasonable person would have understood the parties to have meant”.

On that basis, taking into account the wording in question, it will be hard to say that a reasonable person would not have understood the parties to have meant that cover would not be available if the commercial activities of a business are restricted due to restrictions imposed by authorities following an occurrence of any human infectious or human contagious disease. That said, more recently the Supreme Court seemed to be trending back towards the literal approach moving away from the contextual approach. See, for example, Arnold v. Britton [2015] UKSC 36 where Lord Neuberger [at 17] stated that “the reliance placed in some cases on commercial common sense and surrounding circumstances … should not be invoked to undervalue the importance of the language of the provision which is to be construed.”

The Supreme Court in Wood v. Capita Insurance Services Ltd [2017] UKSC 24 attempted to reconcile these authorities by confirming the validity of both literal and contextual approaches to contract construction. Lord Hodge [at 13] explained the appropriate approach in the following fashion:

“The extent to which [textualism or contextualism] will assist the court in its task will vary according to the circumstances of the particular agreement or agreements. Some agreements may be successfully interpreted principally by textual analysis, for example because of their sophistication and complexity and because they have been negotiated and prepared with the assistance of skilled professionals. The correct interpretation of other contracts may be achieved by a greater emphasis on the factual matrix, for example because of their informality, brevity or the absence of skilled professional assistance. But negotiators of complex formal contracts may often not achieve a logical and coherent text because of, for example, the conflicting aims of the parties, failures of communication, differing drafting practices, or deadlines which require the parties to compromise in order to reach agreement. There may often therefore be provisions in a detailed professionally drawn contract which lack clarity and the lawyer or judge in interpreting such provisions may be particularly helped by considering the factual matrix and the purpose of similar provisions in contracts of the same type. …”

This approach indicates that a more contextual approach can be adopted in construing some commercial contracts. The key question will be whether standard business interruption policies sold to small and medium sized businesses can be viewed as sophisticated contracts negotiated and prepared with the assistance of skilled professionals? That is highly doubtful! So, there might be room for the courts to adopt a more contextual approach when it comes to construing such contracts bearing in mind the factual matrix. Defining the factual matrix in this context will not be an easy task but the approach taken by courts when construing the scope of professional indemnity policies in actions brought by those who suffered from mesothelioma or their families (Employers’ Liability Policy Trigger Litigation Durham v. BAI [2012] UKSC 14) might give clues as to the likely direction of travel in this context as well.

On the other hand, one appreciates the genuine concerns of insurers- providing indemnity for losses they did not intend to cover- will have implications on their businesses and also their re-insurance arrangements. They can plausibly argue that higher rate of premium would have been charged if they were expected to cover the financial losses emerging from a global pandemic.

One feels that a lengthy and tough legal battle lies ahead!

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