At the end of January, the Rhode Island Supreme Court concluded that a pollution exclusion contained in a general liability policy did not bar coverage for a suit alleging that the policyholder’s negligence caused 170 gallons of home heating oil to leak into its customer’s basement resulting in property damage. Regan Heating & Air Conditioning v. Arbella Protection Insurance Co., No. 2020-170-Appeal.
- First, the court confirmed that context matters. Just because a substance can be a “pollutant” in some contexts does not mean that all losses alleging damage caused by that substance are excluded “pollution” claims.
- Second, the court recognized that a split in judicial opinions as to the meaning of a disputed policy term is “proof positive” of ambiguity – or, at a minimum, supports a finding that the policy is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation.
The Regan ruling is consistent with well-settled principles of policy interpretation. The onus has always been on insurance companies, who hold the drafting pen and the bargaining power, to use clear and unequivocal language to describe what is (or is not) covered. In the absence of clear language, or where reasonable minds could differ – as was the case in Regan – the policy is ambiguous and must be interpreted in favor of coverage.