Arctic ice formed a natural sea wall that protected the barrier-reef of Kivalina, home to about 400 Inupiat Eskimos — until it thinned in recent years, and waves gulped at the shore, eroding the spit of land off Alaska’s northwestern shore and compelling residents to look elsewhere to live.
The Inupiat blame global warming and, more pointedly, in a federal lawsuit, energy companies that burn fossil fuel that they say contributed greenhouse gases warming the Earth.
The suit so far has been unsuccessful. Where it has succeeded, however, is in giving insurance lawyers a case study of an issue emerging as a major concern to property-casualty insurance companies and reinsurers, such as those in Hartford and Fairfield counties. Energy companies, air polluters and all manner of potentially responsible parties could be sued, and if they are, their liability insurer has an obligation to defend them.
The property-casualty industry has billions of dollars at stake each year when tornadoes, hurricanes, hailstorms and other disasters ravage homes and businesses.
But what about when a remote Alaskan village sues the energy industry, claiming that climate change has flooded the town? Are the insurers that provide coverage to the energy companies liable?
It’s actually two fundamental questions — can it be proven that climate change caused the village to flood, and, separately, if the energy companies are responsible, are insurers on the hook for damages?
These are some of the issues that will be discussed today (Friday) during a conference for insurance lawyers at the University of Connecticut School of Law’s Insurance Law Center.
One of the legal questions to determine if an insurer’s liability coverage covers an incident — including, potentially, climate change — is whether it was “an occurrence,” said Peter Kochenburger, executive director of the UConn Insurance Law Center.
“That’s not a user-friendly word, and the courts are all over the place on it,” Kochenburger said. “But said one way, ‘Is it an accident?’ Because if it’s not an accident, if there’s no fortuity, then, regardless of whether its property damage and there’s no exclusion, it’s not covered.”
The legal nuances abound. I will be reporting on the event later today. Featured speakers include:
- Michael Gerrard, Director of the Center for Climate Change Law and Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice, Columbia Law School.
- John H. Fitzpatrick, Secretary General of The Geneva Association.
- Anji Seth, Associate Professor, University of Connecticut Department of Geography