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Justices disagree on pollution exclusion coverage

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A divided Indiana Supreme Court has held that the pollution exclusion contained in a general commercial liability policy is ambiguous and should be construed to provide coverage rather than in favor of the insurance company trying to deny coverage.

In a 3-2 decision in State Automobile Mutual Insurance Company v. Flexdar, Inc. and RTS Realty, Justices Robert Rucker and Brent Dickson affirmed a ruling by Marion Superior Judge Michael Keele in favor of Flexdar. Justice Steven David concurred in result. But Justice Frank Sullivan and Chief Justice Randall Shepard disagreed, writing that they think the majority’s ruling will result in higher insurance premiums.

The case involves an Indianapolis rubber stamp and printing plate facility that operated from the mid-1990s to 2003, and how the manufacturing process used a chemical solvent that later appeared in the soil and groundwater on and near the site. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management informed the company it would be liable for cleanup costs, and Flexdar turned to its commercial general liability and umbrella insurance policies with State Automobile Mutual Insurance for defense and indemnification. State Auto agreed to defend Flexdar against the claims under a reservation of its right to deny coverage, but it later argued that the contamination wasn’t covered because of a pollution exclusion in the policy.

The trial court agreed with Flexdar that the policy’s exclusion language was ambiguous and should be construed against State Auto, and the intermediate appellate court affirmed.

Rucker wrote that Indiana applies basic contract principles to these issues and precedent has consistently held that an insurer can and should specify what falls within its pollution exclusion. In cases where the court’s found the language ambiguous, it has ruled in favor of coverage. In this case, the question is whether the policy language is sufficiently unambiguous to identify the chemical solvent as a pollutant, and this time they’ve determined it is not. Precedent dictates affirming the trial court’s decision, he wrote.

Sullivan and Shepard dissented in a two-page opinion, finding in favor of the insurer and noting they would have reversed the trial judge’s decision. Pointing to a 1996 decision from the state’s justices, Sullivan wrote that Indiana caselaw has never before stood for the proposition that all pollution exclusions are unenforceable but that is what this ruling now does.

 

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