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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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  1. Hail to our Constitutional Law Expert in the Executive Office! “What you’re not paying attention to is the fact that I just took an action to change the law,” Obama said.

  2. What is this, the Ind Supreme Court thinking that there is a separation of powers and limited enumerated powers as delegated by a dusty old document? Such eighteen century thinking, so rare and unwanted by the elites in this modern age. Dictate to us, dictate over us, the massess are chanting! George Soros agrees. Time to change with times Ind Supreme Court, says all President Snows. Rule by executive decree is the new black.

  3. I made the same argument before a commission of the Indiana Supreme Court and then to the fedeal district and federal appellate courts. Fell flat. So very glad to read that some judges still beleive that evidentiary foundations matter.

  4. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  5. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

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