Category Archives: Legal Environment

Sugar: The Next Tobacco?

Is sugar the next tobacco? Liability insurance experts say it could be.

Excessive, but not always obvious use of sugar (also salt) in food has the potential for systemic loss, a recent Lloyd’s report found.

The potential loss scenario unfolds if excessive levels of sugar are found to be harmful by scientific studies and if courts find food producers and/or the distribution chain liable for resulting damages.

“A societal shift may make the addition of significant amounts of sugar to our food unacceptable, with liability risks affecting food manufacturers (and possibly distributors and retailers).”

A sample footprint in the report (below), starting from sugar beet and cane farming to sugar and confectionary manufacturing and spreading to various other food manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and food and drink outlets shows the widespread distribution of sugar and the potential impact on many customers:

“Historical data suggests that the spread would also be amplified by the presence of large corporates with large insurance cover and funds.”

Businesses address their liability concerns through many types of risk management, of which insurance is an important component, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

A Swiss Re study indicated that the United States in 2013 had the largest commercial liability insurance market in the world both in premium volume ($84 billion) and as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (0.50 percent).

Case Of The Missing Comma

Grammarians and legal eagles among you will want to read about how a punctuation mark known as the Oxford comma is the crucial factor in a class action involving overtime pay for truck drivers.

This is just one of the items covered in our Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) Daily newsletter today, a must-read publication for anyone in and around the insurance industry. (Sign up by emailing daily@iii.org).

Citing the New York Times, the I.I.I. Daily reports that on March 13 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit handed down a lengthy court decision that is seen as a grammar lesson that could lead to an estimated $10 million loss for a dairy company in Portland, Maine.

The backstory: In 2014 three truck drivers filed a lawsuit seeking more than four years of overtime pay they alleged that Oakhurst Dairy had denied them unfairly. Under Maine law, workers have to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked in excess of 40 per week, with some exceptions.

Punctuation refresher: Grammarians are very polarized about whether a comma should be placed before the last of a series of items in a list, and some insist on what is referred to as the Oxford comma, one preceding the final item, while others habitually omit it. The absence of the comma can change meaning.

Comma in question: The state law involved in the case says that overtime rules do not apply to “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1) Agricultural produce; 2) Meat and fish products; and 3) Perishable foods.” The question before the court was whether the law intended to exempt distribution of the three categories or packing for their shipping or distribution.

The decision: The appeals court ruled in favor of the drivers, after finding that the absence of a comma after “shipment” led to uncertainty about whether the law exempts applies to delivery drivers who distribute perishable foods, although they do not pack them. The appeals court reversed a lower court decision that denied truckers overtime.

If you’re surprised at the $10 million difference a comma can make, consider how important it is to draft insurance contracts and policy language that use words and punctuation correctly. This Deepwater Horizon coverage dispute is a good example.

Minimizing Human Error At The Oscars

One week since we were left scratching our heads following the botched best picture announcement at the 89th Academy Awards ceremony, the liability ripples from an apparent act of human error continue to spread.

Just to recap: the mix-up occurred after a PricewaterhouseCoopers partner mistakenly handed presenter Warren Beatty the wrong envelope for the best picture award.

As the LA Times reported early on, the mistake instantly turned into a public relations nightmare for the accounting firm which has handled the balloting process for the Academy Awards for 83 years.

For its part, PwC quickly moved to mitigate damage to its brand, issuing an apology and accepting full responsibility for the mixup.

Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, the two PwC partners involved, have been permanently removed from all Academy activities. PwC said the partners did not follow through protocols for correcting the error quickly enough.

Whether or not the Academy will terminate its contract with PwC, industry lawyers say there are a number of potential liability issues that could arise, per this article by The Hollywood Reporter.

Others say public perception and doubts about PwC’s expertise could be a costly risk factor going forward.

As the fallout continues, the two PwC accountants involved now need security protection due to the public backlash.

While this human error did not happen in the process of crunching the numbers, it does highlight how important it is for businesses to manage their professional liability risks.

Insurers have developed professional liability policies to meet the unique needs of a wide range of industries. Crisis response and helping businesses to protect their reputation are among the services insurers provide.

Uber Case Highlights Employment Liability Risk

By now you’ll have read the troubling tale of alleged workplace sexual harassment as told by a former Uber employee on her personal blog.

As the LA Times reports, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has called in former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to conduct an independent investigation and claimed that the blog post was the first he knew of the incident.

The allegations are a warning to the tech industry and its so-called rockstar culture, the LA Times notes.

The New York Times goes into more detail here.

In a statement issued following a meeting with Kalanick and staff to discuss diversity and inclusion, Uber board member Arianna Huffington said:

“I view it as my responsibility to hold the leadership team’s feet to the fire on this issue.”

This is not the first time that the ridesharing company has been in the hot seat for behaving badly, as discussed in this earlier blog post.

Charges of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination accounted for 26,934, or 29.4 percent of all job bias charges reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2016.

As the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) notes, the number of employee lawsuits has increased in recent years, and any size business is vulnerable to this type of risk.

Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) provides important financial protection to businesses against claims or lawsuits filed by employees, former employees, or potential employees.

EPLI covers legal costs, settlements and judgments that arise from claims of: discrimination (age, sex, race, disability, etc.); wrongful termination of employment; sexual harassment and other employment-related allegations and lawsuits.

In addition to insurance protection, I.I.I. says businesses should take key steps to reduce the risk of an employee lawsuit, such as creating clear workplace practices on employment practices and educating management and employees.

A recent Insurance Journal article took a look at what to expect in EPLI in 2017.

Hatching A Lawsuit? Protect Your Business With Insurance

If you didn’t think suing over Santa was bad enough shed a tear over the unfortunate case of the Hatchimal.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the latest toy craze (or weren’t lucky enough to find one under the Christmas tree), the Hatchimal is basically an interactive stuffed animal that hatches from an egg.

Created by toy maker Spin Master Corp, each Hatchimal learns how to walk, talk and play games as it goes through the five stages of its life: egg, hatching, baby, toddler and kid.

Cute, right? Yes, but…

What if your Hatchimal fails to hatch?

For my sons, the case of the unhatching Hatchimal was remedied simply by a cuddle and some (admittedly overly exuberant) help breaking open its shell.

But as Business Insurance reports, the failure to perform has led one disappointed parent—Jodie Hejduk of Bakersfield, California, to file a lawsuit seeking class action against Spin Master Corp.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California charges Spin Master with spoiling the holidays and false advertising after the toy Hedjuk purchased for her daughter failed to hatch.

The suit alleges the hottest toy of the season which retails at $50-$60 was so hard to find that some were selling on the black market for $350:

“For the few children who were lucky enough to receive a Hatchimal, many were left disappointed when their Hatchimal failed to live up to its name. Despite Spin Master’s representations that the toy would “hatch”, many Hatchimals did not hatch.”

The suit asserts violations of the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Unfair Competition Law and False Advertising Law. It also brings claims for unjust enrichment, breach of express warranty and injunctive relief.

A note on Spin Master’s website says:

“We have had more than a million successful hatches since we first launched Hatchimals on October 7th and we are still hard at work making sure that everyone has a magical hatching experience. We are 100% committed to bringing the magic of Hatchimals to all of our consumers.”

Spin Master also offers some troubleshooting tips on its Support/FAQs page.

And here’s the must-watch video on how to hatch your Hatchimal:

Businesses address their liability concerns through many types of risk management, of which insurance is an important component, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.). See I.I.I. facts and statistics on litigiousness.

Women’s Marches And Insurance

The Women’s March on Washington has inspired a grassroots movement of tens of thousands who will show their solidarity in sister marches held in cities across the country on January 21, the day after the inauguration of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump.

All 50 states and Puerto Rico are confirmed to have at least one grassroots-led march on that day, with more than 500,000 people expected to march across the U.S. and in 55 cities around the world.

For volunteer organizers of sister marches, what began with a simple Facebook posting in many cases has grown into a much bigger event for which organizers have taken on not just leadership responsibility, but potential liability consequences too.

Notwithstanding the rights of individuals to come together in peaceful protest, there’s the potential for claims for bodily injury or property damage in the event a march becomes less peaceful than expected.

What this means is that local volunteer organizers may want to explore their insurance options.

For example, many (but not all) municipalities require individuals or groups using public property to purchase liability insurance as part of the application process for a permit to hold an event.

This issue is already a hot topic in Phoenix, Arizona, where under state regulation, organizers of the sister march are required to secure some $2 million in liability insurance, per this AZCentral.com report.

A number of municipalities also offer tenant user liability programs (so-called TULIP programs) that enable organizers of certain public events on city property to more easily obtain event liability insurance.

Legal Fallout From Oakland Warehouse Tragedy

Filing of the first lawsuits in connection with the December 2 Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36, underscores the importance of managing legal risks that arise from disaster.

The fire was the deadliest in the United States since a 2003 nightclub fire in Rhode Island that killed 100.

Civil complaints were filed Friday on behalf of families of two students who died in the blaze against a number of people, including the building’s owner and those who transformed the space into an artist community that was home to 20 people but not permitted for residential use, promoters and those involved with the event.

Separate claims were also filed against employees of Oakland city and Alameda County departments.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the city of Oakland has come under increasing scrutiny since the Dec. 2 fire for failing to prevent the blaze. City officials have said no building inspector had been in the warehouse for the past three decades even though complaints had been made for years.

Although state law provides a broad liability shield for local governments for failing to conduct building inspections, the immunity is “not insurmountable,” according to the lawyer representing families.

Criminal charges may also follow.

Among the lawsuits’ allegations, according to CNN:

—“The interior of the approximately 10,000-square-foot Ghost Ship was a death trap, which contained a maze of makeshift rooms, alcoves and partitions. It was cluttered with carvings, mannequins, paintings, artwork, scraps of wood, pianos, furniture, tapestries and at least one recreational vehicle trailer, which were kindling for the fire.”

and

—The building contained insufficient smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, sprinklers, exit signs and emergency lighting.

The Insuring California blog post Can cities and artists work together to create safe spaces for venues? explores some of the other factors contributing to the deadly blaze.

U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 1,210 fires in warehouse properties per year (excluding refrigerated or cold storage), which represents less than 1% of all structure fires, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports.

These fires caused an annual average of $155 million in direct property damage, three civilian deaths, and 19 civilian injuries.

Fires that were intentionally set and fires caused by electrical distribution and lighting equipment are the leading causes of warehouse fires, according to the NFPA (below).

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NFPA notes:

“Warehouses present special challenges for fire protection because their contents and layouts are conducive to fire spread and present obstacles to manual fire suppression efforts.”

More on structure fires available in the Insurance Information Institute’s facts and statistics on fire.

‘Tis The Season…For Lawsuits

In true holiday spirit we just got our kids to the mall to see Santa this week. Its an annual tradition, a visit that helps keep the magic alive in our all-too-knowing six and four-year olds’ minds and more importantly yields the holiday photo that keeps on giving throughout the years.

Every year Santa faces a barrage of questions. This year was no different. Our six year-old started: “Santa, I have a question. How come you know I want a two-wheeled scooter?”

Luckily, the letter from the North Pole had arrived a few days earlier telling him he had made the Nice List and that Santa knew from our elf Chippy just what he was wishing for.

This was confirmed by Santa at the mall who said: “Because you’ve been good and it’s magic.”

But what if the conversation had gone a different way?

Sometimes magic confronts reality and a lawsuit ensues, reminding us what’s at stake for Santa and the mall this Christmas.

Take this post over at Randy Spencer’s Open Mic published in the latest issue of online newsletter Coverage Opinions (edited by attorney Randy Maniloff of White and Williams LLP)

In the post, Court Holds a Mail Santa Liable: Damages Owed For Failure To Deliver A Toy Fire Truck, Randy Spencer – the only stand-up comic to specialize in insurance – tells of a Montana trial court that found a mall and its Santa liable for a child’s emotional injuries after promising a toy that was not left under the tree come Christmas Day.

How much damages did the court award in this case? $95,000.

All of which is a timely reminder that Santa (and the malls that embrace the Christmas spirit) need insurance too.

Which is why the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) urges St. Nick to review his insurance policies to be sure he’s got the right insurance coverage with its Santa’s Insurance Wish List.

And we suggest the I.I.I.’s business insurance checklist would make a great stocking stuffer in this case.

All the best for a happy and safe holiday season!

Rolling Stone Defamation Case Highlights Insurance Need

As the Rolling Stone defamation case moves into the damages phase today, media businesses everywhere—and their insurers—will be watching closely.

A federal jury on Friday found that Rolling Stone magazine, its parent company Wenner Media and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of a discredited 2014 article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, were liable for defaming Nicole Eramo, a former associate dean of students at the school.

According to this Wall Street Journal report, Ms. Eramo is seeking $7.5 million but the award could potentially go higher.

Rolling Stone also faces a defamation suit brought by the UVA chapter of the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, the focus of the 2014 article. That case is seeking $25 million.

The verdict against Rolling Stone is the second large media liability claim this year.

In June, a jury awarded $140 million in damages to the former professional wrestler known as Hulk Hogan in an invasion-of-privacy case against Gawker Media Group over the publication of a sex tape.

Gawker settled the lawsuit just last week agreeing to pay the wrestling star, whose actual name is Terry Bollea, $31 million. Gawker was forced into bankruptcy and sold to Univision in August.

The cases have prompted legal experts to express concerns over the increasing frequency with which complaints about journalism are being settled in the “unpredictable and expensive sphere of the courts”, according to this New York Times article.

From the insurance perspective, the cases underscore how important it is for online and traditional publishers, broadcasters and other media-related firms to purchase media liability insurance.

This specialist type of errors and omissions (E&O) insurance protects creators of content against liability claims resulting from a range of exposures, including, but not limited to, defamation, invasion of privacy, infringement of copyright, and plagiarism.

While there is a fair amount of media liability insurance sold (an estimated $300 million to $500 million in the United States, and $50 million elsewhere (mostly in the United Kingdom)), according to this 2016 survey by Betterley Risk Consultants, further growth is predicted:

“We suspect that much of the media market is untapped risk, self-assumed by large organizations that can afford to self-insure, or ignored by small organizations that don’t think they are exposed.”

In the case of Rolling Stone, its parent company Wenner Media, is reported to have an undisclosed amount of media liability insurance to cover any damages related to the trial.

Still, at least one analyst cited in this report by the Wall Street Journal, says that if costs related to this lawsuit and other pending lawsuits exceed $50 million, Wenner Media may not be able to fund it with existing resources.

Check out I.I.I. resources on E&O insurance for small businesses here.

Pride Round-Up

June is Pride month and our annual round-up of the latest insurance news around the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community must first acknowledge the June 12 tragedy at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Some of the insurance implications of the attack are discussed in this Insurance Business Magazine article.

LGBT Financials: In the year since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating states must permit same-sex marriages, LGBT households are changing and marriage equality has simplified finances for many, according to the 2016/2017 LGBT Financial Experience survey by Prudential. Commentary from survey respondents suggests this is due to simplified taxes, insurance coverage and estate planning. Despite agreement on the importance of saving for the future, in comparison to the general population, fewer LGBT respondents have retirement accounts, life insurance or a will or estate plan.

Transgender Rights: As discussed in our earlier blog post Where Insurance Meets Transgender Rights, recent federal and state rulings pertaining to the rights of transgender individuals (including laws restricting restroom access) raise a number of issues, and there are potential insurance implications to consider. While this is an evolving area of law and liability for businesses and municipalities everywhere, insurers—and the policies they write—will no doubt be implicated. Businesses need to know what their state or municipality has enacted on this issue and establish a coherent nondiscriminatory policy to minimize their liabilities.

Corporate Equality: A record 407 businesses, including 27 insurers scored 100 percent in the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s 2016 Corporate Equality Index (CEI) based on their workplace policies, benefits and practices pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer employees. The number of insurers achieving the top ranking has seen a steady increase over the last decade. A total of 851 businesses were rated in the 2016 CEI. Some 165 of the Fortune 500-ranked businesses achieved a 100 percent rating.

Have a safe and Happy Pride!