Does a CGL Policy’s “Business Description” or “Class Code” Limit Coverage?

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One way a CGL insurer can narrow otherwise broad bodily injury and property damage coverage is by activity. Activities that face similar risk can be grouped using an activity classification code, which can be incorporated into the policy through a class limitation endorsement.

For instance, a policy issued to an individual (for any business of which he is a sole owner) could include an “accounting” class code and a class limitation endorsement, effectively narrowing coverage to accounting activities. Courts routinely enforce such endorsements.[1]

Suppose that, instead of a class limitation endorsement for accounting, the policy’s declarations page merely said “business description: accounting” and “Class Code: 7619—Accounting.” Now suppose the individual also owns a non-accounting business and is sued for liability in connection with that business. Would that be covered? In other words, what effect should a court give to a class code or business description that isn’t incorporated into the policy by endorsement? This question underpins two divergent Circuit Court decisions.

In Smith v. Burlington Ins. Co., Smith owned and operated a courier service and a security service.[2] One of Smith’s armed security guards shot an unarmed teen while on duty at an Oklahoma apartment complex. The teen later died. His mother brought a wrongful-death action against Smith d/b/a Smith and Son Security. On Smith’s CGL policy with Burlington, the declarations designate “Form of Business” as “Individual,” and “Business Description” as “Courier Service.” The Policy section defining “who is an insured” says “If you are designated . . . as [a]n individual, you and your spouse are insureds, but only with respect to the conduct of a business of which you are the sole owner.” Within the policy was a “Schedule of Classification and Rates” listing “94099—Express Companies” (i.e. a Class Code).

 

Burlington denied coverage, saying that the policy was intended to cover Smith only for his courier service business. The district court sided with Burlington and the Tenth Circuit affirmed.[3] The district court held that two standard policy provisions effectively incorporated the business description into the policy itself. The first provision, a merger clause, says “declarations together with the common policy conditions and coverage form(s) and any endorsement(s), complete the above numbered policy.”[4] The second provision, in the “Representations” section, says “By accepting this policy, you agree: (a) The statements in the Declarations are accurate and complete; (b) Those statements are based upon representations you made to us; and (c) We have issued this policy in reliance upon your representations.”[5] The district court also held that using the Class Code “94099—Express Company” “rather than a code that could conceivably cover any armed security guard business confirms that there was no intent to cover Smith’s security business.”[6] The court concluded by stating that it refused to adopt a “strained interpretation that the ‘courier service’ policy covers any business Smith might choose to pursue.”[7]

In Mount Vernon Fire Ins. Co. v. Belize NY, Inc., a general contractor (GC) hired Belize NY, Inc. to perform demolition work at a church in Harlem. A few months later, the GC again hired Belize solely to supervise a subcontractors’ work at the church.[8] Months later, a person entered the church, shot and killed several people, and started a fire before taking his own life. A wrongful death suit was commenced against Belize, alleging that the GC unlawfully shut off the church’s sprinkler system and “bricked over” or eliminated several church exits.[9] On Belize’s CGL policy with Mount Vernon, the declarations designated Belize’s “Form of Business” as “Corporation,” and “Business Description” as “Carpentry.”[10] Two classifications were listed under “Premium Computation” on the Declarations Page: “Carpentry-Interior-001” and “Carpentry-001.”[11]  

Mount Vernon denied coverage for the wrongful-death action, arguing that Belize was acting in a supervisory capacity rather than performing carpentry work at the time of the shooting.[12] The district court sided with Belize and the Second Circuit affirmed. The Second Circuit held that under New York law, exclusions “must be set forth clearly and unmistakably.”[13] But the policy didn’t do that, since there was no “specific language indicating that the classifications [or the business description] determine the scope of the coverage.”[14] “Were we to accept [Mount Vernon’s] argument, insurers would be permitted to argue for limitations of all kinds by invoking the stand-alone words of classification not otherwise referred to in a policy. If Mount Vernon wished to limit coverage based on classifications, it should have done so specifically.”[15]

The Smith and Mount Vernon courts appear to disagree about whether a standalone business description or class code can narrow coverage. Can Smith and Mount Vernon be harmonized? Here’s some guidance. If an insured has a CGL policy with a business description and/or class code suggesting a small risk, and seeks coverage for an activity that involves a completely different, larger, and perhaps more exotic risk (e.g. armed security service), then a court is likely to find that the insurer did not intend to cover the larger risk. To decide otherwise would unfairly blindside the insurer. On the other hand, if the insured has a policy with a business description and/or class code that suggest a risk that is similar to the actual claim (e.g. carpentry vs. construction supervision) then a court is likely to say “close enough” and find coverage. To decide otherwise would be unfair to the insured, since the policy wouldn’t clearly and unmistakably limit coverage. In the end, the safest course is to ensure that the policy accurately reflects both parties’ understanding of the risk.


[1] See, e.g., Evanston Ins. Co. v. Heeder, 490 Fed. Appx. 215 (11th Cir. 2012) (no coverage where classification limitation endorsement narrowed coverage to residential roofing, and claim arose from a commercial roofing project); Ruiz v. State Wide Insulation & Constr. Corp., 269 A.D.2d 518 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (no coverage where classification limitation endorsement narrowed coverage to painting and the insured party was hurt during a roof repair); Princeton Excess and Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. US Global Security Incorporated, et al., Case 4:18-cv-02705 (S.D. Tex. Sept. 24, 2019) (no coverage where designated operations exclusion narrowed coverage to exclude injuries arising out of any work at or in bars, restaurants, taverns or other establishments selling or providing alcoholic beverages, and exception to exclusion did not apply as there were no allegations of an injury arising out of parking lot security operations).

[2] 2019 U.S. App. Lexis 19175, 2019 WL 2635725, at *1 (10th Cir. 2019) (interpreting Oklahoma law).

[3] Smith v. Burlington Ins. Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 54403 (N.D. Okla. 2018), aff’d 2019 U.S. App. Lexis 19175, 2019 WL 2635725 (10th Cir. 2019).

[4] Id. at *11

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at *7.

[7] Id. at *15.

[8] 277 F.3d 232, 235 (2d Cir. 2002) (interpreting New York law).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 234.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 236.

[13] Id. at 237.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 239.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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