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Insurance Company Suffocation Clause

Does an Old Insurance Policy’s “Suffocation” Clause Defeat Coverage for Losses Caused by Weather?

David A. Domina

A raging winter storm. Ice. Curtains on the exterior of a confinement swine finishing building malfunction. The curtains are to provide emergency ventilation. The emergency exists because the weather knocks out power. Ventilator fans stop running. The temperature inside the building swelters while howling winter winds rage outside. Swine are intelligent animals. They space themselves out in their building evenly as if sorted into invisible little pens.

And there they die.

Suffocation? Or, weather, a malfunction caused by a storm, and death caused by insured circumstances? Terry White of Domina Law Group presented these insurance contract interpretation questions to the Iowa Court of Appeals in Des Moines in late April.

“Our northwest Iowa producer client suffered a substantial loss, and the weather was the proximate cause,” White argued. State Farm claims, “Look, the hogs ran out of oxygen; they suffocated. When the cessation of respiration is the cause of death, suffocation occurs and there is no coverage.”

The producer’s State Farm policy provided the legal framework for the dispute that developed. It was an old policy, written with language covering a swine industry that has now passed into history, typified by little farms, small operations, and written to eliminate the risk that animals would pile up on top of one another and suffocate themselves.

“The policy was written for a different era. Its premiums have gone up, but its language has not been modernized,” White observed. “Yet, the language’s logical construction supports our position.”

The lawyers involved for the producer and the insurer could find little precedent to guide the Iowa Court of Appeals’ decision. “A couple Illinois cases, involving circumstances far less clear than ours, provides some guidance,” White said. “We think they tend, perhaps, to favor us slightly. Mostly, we are forced to rely upon the logic of the circumstances and the science of what happens inside a confinement livestock building. When ventilation stops, temperatures rise rapidly in a building filled with near-market weight animals. Since swine can’t sweat, death can as much be said to result from heat as from a slowly dropping oxygen level in the air.”

Domina Law Group expects the Iowa Court of Appeals to render its decision in late June.

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