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Hurricane Damage at New Orleans Apartment Leads to Dispute Over Insurance Coverage Calculation

Insurance policies routinely include provisions that are intended to limit the scope of the insurer’s coverage in the event of a claim by the policyholder. For instance, most homeowner’s insurance policies exclude coverage for fire damage that results from the policyholder’s deliberate arson. Commercial premises insurance policies, which commonly also include coverage for loss of business income, can carry similar limitations. The recent case of Berk-Cohen Associates, L.L.C. v. Landmark American Insurance Company in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit provides an instructive example of how insurance policies are “construed using the general rules of interpretation of contracts” by the courts.

Berk-Cohen Associates, L.L.C., as the owner of the Forest Isle Apartments in New Orleans, maintained an insurance policy to cover the complex with the Landmark American Insurance Company. The policy covered property damage but specifically did not cover losses at Forest Isle “caused directly or indirectly by Flood.” In the case of a covered cause of loss, such as wind damage or fire, the policy insured Berk-Cohen against both the property damage and the resulting lost business income. However, the scope of the income protection excluded any income that would have been earned directly as a consequence of any “favorable business conditions caused by the impact of the Covered Cause of Loss on customers or on other businesses.” In other words, Berk-Cohen could not profit by a widespread calamity that was also the source of a property damage claims. Forest Isle suffered a series of misfortunes, including a tornado, a vehicle strike, and–most significant–damage from Hurricane Katrina. Following the hurricane, Landmark compensated Berk-Cohen for damages caused by wind but not flood. Concerning Berk-Cohen’s claim for lost business income, Landmark argued that it was not responsible for the increased rents that resulted from the extensive flooding around the city because flood damage was excluded from the policy. Accordingly, Landmark “declined to increase its calculation of lost business income to the extent that any foregone income arose from flooding.” Berk-Cohen initiated litigation and, following a bench trial, the district court held that, notwithstanding the flood damage exclusion in the policy, Landmark should have considered the business conditions attributable to flooding in other buildings when computing the business income that Berk-Cohen lost as a result of the wind damage to Forest Isle. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit upheld the district court’s opinion. It noted that the “Covered Cause of Loss” that gave rise to Berk-Choen’s property damage claim was wind. Consequently, the policy language prohibited Berk-Cohen from recovering for lost business income as a result of wind damage suffered by customers or other competing businesses. But, “any increase in customers’ demand or reduction in competitors’ supply due to flooding at other properties is a permissible factor in calculating lost business income.” (Emphasis supplied.) The court refused to permit Landmark to exclude coverage for flood damage by the policy language while at the same time invoking the same source of damage to reduce Berk-Cohen’s business income recovery. To do so would “extend[] the flood exclusion beyond its function,” since the policy specifically permits the income calculation to consider “favorable business conditions.” Accordingly, the court “decline[d] to use a limitation on coverage”–that is, flooding–“to alter the calculation of damages for a covered loss”–the lost income. The Fifth Circuit concluded that the “policy … excludes coverage for flood damages at the Forest Isle property. The flood exclusion does not, however, prevent Berk-Cohen from recovering lost business income due to the favorable business conditions arising from flood damage to other buildings.”

This case demonstrates that applying the “normal cannons of contract interpretation” can work to the benefit of the insured. As with any contract, the insurance company is bound by the plain meaning of the policy language, even if it means that excluding coverage for one claim will open the door to liability for another. The lesson here is that a knowledgeable and experienced attorney is invaluable to anyone who is involved in a dispute over insurance coverage.

If you are dissatisfied with your insurance company’s handling of a claim, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help you obtain the payout you deserve.