By Jeffrey K. Lewis, Attorney and Research Specialist, Ohio State University Agricultural & Resource Law Program
When was the last time you read your farm business insurance policy? Under your policy, do you know when coverage is triggered for loss of business profits and loss of assets? In the case below, you will learn about a dairy farm that recently dealt with the issue of stray voltage causing dairy cattle to unexpectedly pass away. Even though the farm had insurance, the farm continued to operate, albeit at a reduced capacity, while it dealt with the silent killer. The farm continued to operate under the assumption that any loss of business income and the loss of its primary assets would be covered under its insurance policy.
Mengel Dairy Farms
Mengel Dairy Farms could not begin to fathom why its dairy cattle were unexpectedly dying off. Beyond its loss of livestock, Mengel also suffered loss of milk production and business profits. The farm eventually hired an expert to help it determine the cause of death of its cattle. The expert determined that a stray electrical current was present on the property, causing the dairy cattle to die.
Mengel then proceeded to file an insurance claim with its insurance provider, Hastings Mutual Insurance Company, hoping to receive insurance benefits for the lost cattle, cost of the investigation into the death of the cattle, the subsequent repairs to correct the stray electrical current, and for its lost business profits.
Hastings, however, sent out its own expert to help determine the cause of death of the cattle. Hastings’ expert could not find any stray voltage on the property but did believe that electrocution may have caused Mengel’s cattle to stop eating and ultimately die.
After its investigation, Hastings paid Mengel for the death of its cattle and the cost of the investigation into the deaths of the livestock, but Hastings rejected coverage for the loss of business income. Hastings then filed an action in the Federal District Court, asking the court to determine that there was no coverage for Mengel’s lost business income as a result of the electrocuted dairy cattle.
After Hastings filed its action, Mengel submitted a second insurance claim to Hastings for the death of additional livestock, costs of additional investigation and repair, and additional lost profits. Hastings did not provide any coverage, this time, to Mengel for its second insurance claim and instead issued a reservation of rights letter to Mengel stating that coverage for Mengel’s second claim may be subject to exclusions under Mengel’s insurance policy. Hastings then asked the court to also determine whether Hastings was required to pay for the loss of the additional dairy cattle and additional lost profits.
Coverage for electrocuted dairy cattle
In its argument to the court, Hastings claimed that under the dairy farm’s insurance policy, Hastings was not required to pay any insurance benefits for the additional dairy cattle that passed away from the stray electrical current. Hastings argued that even though death or destruction of livestock by electrocution is a covered peril under Mengel’s insurance policy, the term electrocution means instant death, and because Mengel’s cattle did not die instantly, Mengel was not entitled to insurance benefits for the cattle.
The Court disagreed. The court found that the term “electrocution” was an ambiguous term within the insurance policy because it was not expressly defined. Additionally, the court went on to analyze that coverage existed for both the death or destruction of livestock. The court determined that the term destruction encompasses more than just death. Reading the terms destruction and electrocution together, the court held that electrocution can consist of an event that does not necessarily result in instantaneous death but may still cause irreparable harm.
Therefore, the electrocution causing Mengel’s cattle to stop eating and ultimately die could be considered “destruction of livestock” which would be covered under the farm’s insurance policy.
Coverage for lost business income
Since discovering the cause of death to its dairy cattle, Mengel reduced its farming operations to deal with the stray electrical current. Under Mengel’s insurance policy, coverage existed for lost business income “due to the necessary suspension” of operations. The insurance policy also indicated that the necessary suspension of farm operations must have been caused or resulted from an insured peril. Mengel thought that because it reduced operations for a covered peril (the electrocution of its livestock), it was entitled to coverage for its lost business income. Hastings disagreed and claimed that coverage did not exist for Mengel because the farm did not shut down its farming operations completely, it only reduced operations.
The court sided with Hastings. The court found that “necessary suspension” means a complete shutdown of operations, even if temporary. The court noted that a slowing down of business is not covered under the insurance policy. Therefore, Mengel’s claim for lost profits is not covered under the policy because it continued to operate at a reduced capacity.
Mengel filed its own claims against its insurer for bad faith and breach of contract. However, after the court’s determination that coverage existed for electrocuted cattle that did not die instantly and the court’s conclusion that Mengel was not owed any insurance benefits for lost profits, the parties settled their dispute out of court.
It may not be as easy as you think to determine what is covered (and what should be covered) under your insurance policy. Insurance companies do their best to draft insurance policies to be as precise as possible. Certain prerequisites must be met in order for coverage to exist for a farmer and their business. It is vital that you understand what is covered (and not covered) under your insurance policy. You may be taking steps to remediate any issues with the assumption that insurance will cover any expenses or lost revenue you may endure, but as the above case demonstrates, this is not always true.