Climate Change Liability

The Emerging Tort Storm

Greenhouse gas emissions could follow tobacco and asbestos as the next mega-tort.
By: | February 18, 2014 • 5 min read

Is climate change the next mass tort? A growing number of experts predict it could be, particularly after the ambiguity of a recent large case settlement opened the door for potential mass litigation.

The insurance implications could also be significant, and corporations that might be contributing to climate change should plan now how to mitigate these exposures.

Environmental damage caused by climate change could be “the next mass tort” if future litigators are able to demonstrate a link between environmental damages and greenhouse gas emissions by large corporations, wrote actuary Jill Mysliwiec in a recent Milliman Inc. report, The Cost of Climate Change: Will Companies Pay in Court?

Mysliwiec pointed to the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case of American Electric Power, which pitted five large-scale private electric power companies emitting greenhouse gases against the City of New York and eight additional states.

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In an 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court held that corporations cannot be sued for greenhouse gas emissions under federal common law, primarily because the Clean Air Act delegates the management of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“While the AEP case may not have specifically created a path to indemnification, the fact that it didn’t rule out any possible future litigation efforts speaks volumes,” Mysliwiec wrote. “The ruling may be an indication that such potential efforts may in fact be successful in the future.”

Since a major obstacle in litigation has been demonstrating a cause and effect relationship between damages and emissions, and in identifying a specific defendant, future groups of plaintiffs and defendants might be lumped in a single mass tort litigation case, she wrote.

Such plaintiffs could be armed by each defendant’s public disclosures of their greenhouse gas emissions, now required by the EPA.

“If documentation exists proving that a corporation was aware of its harmful operations, avoiding the consequences becomes more difficult,” she wrote.

“As was the case with tobacco and asbestos, we likely will not know whether climate change will be the next mega-tort for many years.” —Warren A. Koshofer, partner, Michelman & Robinson LLP

Warren A. Koshofer, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Michelman & Robinson LLP, said that there are significant hurdles to obtaining coverage for climate change litigation under standard commercial general liability policies, as highlighted by the Virginia Supreme Court decision in AES Corp. v. Steadfast.

“The occurrence hurdle is one that is not readily susceptible to negotiation when new CGL policies are being obtained,” Koshofer said. “The two exclusions can, however, be the subject of negotiations with the insurer.”

Given the current state of climate change litigation, where plaintiffs are having extreme difficulty overcoming the standing and political question doctrines and otherwise establishing claims against emitters of greenhouse gases, the real goal for an insured is to avoid the insurer being relieved of their duty to defend, which is broader than their duty to indemnify, he said.

Separating the duty to defend from the indemnity provisions of the CGL policy is one potential avenue an insured can explore — whether through negotiated sub-limits or the procurement of a stand-alone defense cost policy.

“As was the case with tobacco and asbestos, we likely will not know whether climate change will be the next mega-tort for many years,” Koshofer said.

“While it certainly is following the early pattern of tobacco and asbestos, a key difference is the injuries alleged in climate change cases thus far have been more focused on property damage than the significant bodily injuries that ultimately fueled the plaintiff’s bar to refine and target tobacco and asbestos related cases.”

Lindene E. Patton, chief climate product officer of Zurich Insurance Group in Schaumburg, Ill., who co-authored a book titled Climate Change and Insurance, said that plaintiffs are now experimenting in the tort liability area, as well as claims of statutory violations or noncompliance.

But so far, that litigation is largely at the procedural stage and “not a whole lot beyond that.”

Still, underwriters should consider looking for appropriate risk management practices from clients that could be potentially exposed to such litigation — whether that is greenhouse gas emitters or professional service providers, such as engineers or consultants who do work involving greenhouse gas or adaptation to climate change, Patton said.

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For example, she said, engineers need to understand that the law is now examining whether “conduct evaluating and managing climate-related risks not only should consider historical exposures, but also projected exposures in the future. If an engineer is going to deliver a product to customer who declines to address future exposures expected by climate scientists, then engineers need to explain to their clients the range of potential impacts based on the expert advice.”

There might be dispute about which science to apply. And if a loss occurs, litigation might lead to the ultimate determination of who was right and who was wrong, Patton said. However, underwriters might have to pay for defense expenses, even if the carriers ultimately have no indemnity expenses. This will be true for professional liability policies as well as general liability policies, to the extent they are triggered.

“People who believe that they have followed the law and received a permit to build or have purchased a property may wake up one day with their property blown away or underwater, with no mechanism to get relief, and they may look elsewhere for compensation,” she said. “This appears to be what we’re seeing in some cases of climate change litigation.”

Mysliwiec suggested that companies mitigate potential exposures by forming partnerships with governmental entities to develop a means for funds to be pooled and set aside for damages.

Companies, either individually or as a group, should also take a proactive approach to provide funds to cover losses, “in an effort to appeal to consumers,” she wrote.

In addition, insurers should develop a means to provide the funds for these losses, potentially through the use of catastrophe models.

“It would be advantageous to all parties involved for a proactive solution to be explored, in an effort to avoid the high costs of defense and litigation that may come from a less assertive approach,” Mysliwiec wrote.

“This uncertainty and our society’s current state could be creating an ideal situation for the next mass tort of our generation. The money to pay for the damages will have to come from somewhere and it remains to be seen just where that deep pocket may be hiding.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Workers' Comp

Keeping Workers on Their Feet

Slip and fall prevention programs must interweave all of the factors contributing to the risk.
By: | July 6, 2017 • 11 min read

If you peruse the last decade’s worth of literature from the CDC, NIOSH, or numerous other agencies or organizations, you’re bound to come across the “good news” that slips, trips and falls are largely preventable.

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So it’s frustrating, then, that slip, trip and fall injuries consistently account for more than a quarter of all nonfatal occupational injuries, and at least 65 percent of those injuries happen on same-level walking surfaces. And those figures just don’t budge all that much from year to year.

According to the “2016 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index,” falls on same level currently rank as the second highest cause of disabling injuries in the U.S., with direct costs of $10.17 billion, accounting for 16.4 percent of the total national injury burden.

“Not only are they still happening often, but they tend to be very significant injuries,” said Mike Lampl, director of research at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

“We’ve seen these trends grow over the years,” said Wayne Maynard, product director, risk control, with Liberty Mutual. “Bottom line is, it’s a real, real big problem.”

So why are preventable falls so hard to prevent? This stubborn status quo, say experts, is that the causes of slips and trips are typically far more complex than they seem. There are nearly always multiple factors in play, from footwear and flooring and the interplay of both, to cleaning procedures, lighting, housekeeping, weather, and workers’ mental or physical conditions as well as overall awareness.

And all of these factors are being exacerbated by the fact that incidents often go unreported.

“Slips, falls — people get up, move on, they don’t report it,” said Maynard.

“When somebody’s injured and files a claim — in the workers’ arena, how many are behind the scenes that may have happened that are not reportable? …. The unreported number is considerable in my opinion.”

The key to making any headway in reducing slips and falls on the same surface, say experts, is to have a comprehensive fall prevention plan that addresses all possible factors. No small task.

Engineering Solutions

Flooring conditions are often the most obvious starting point. Ideally, said Maynard, all the right choices are made at the planning and design stage. But sometimes mistakes are made, and in other cases, a business may be inheriting an older space with floor chosen for a different purpose.

Patricia Showerman, senior loss control consultant, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

So even flooring in good condition may be the wrong type of material and may not have the necessary coefficient of friction (slip resistance) needed for the work being done.

If companies want to drill down into all the details of the surfaces in their facilities, a friction coefficient study is always an option, said Patricia Showerman, senior loss control consultant at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

But if a company doesn’t want to take that step, she said, it may be a simpler matter of saying, “Let’s look at what you’ve got. Let’s look at your floor surfaces and how you’re maintaining them.”

A lot of people want that “shiny grocery store glam look,” she said. “And if you can do it properly, and maintain it properly and keep that coefficient of friction and have the shiny look, that’s great. That’s what everybody wants but how do they get there?”

Certain surfaces may start out with an adequate coefficient of friction when they’re clean and dry. But add even an invisible layer of dust or debris, “and it’s like microscopic little BBs that you slide across,” said Showerman. “So if you have dust on your floor, you are dramatically reducing your slip coefficient.”

For companies that do have flooring surfaces in need of improvement, ripping up the floor and replacing it isn’t typically a feasible option. Fortunately there are more budget-friendly ways to get the maximum slip resistance from existing flooring, such as coatings and etchings.

A coating adds a microscopic layer on top of the flooring that creates a grip surface while maintaining the shine. Showerman likened the effect to the way that Velcro fasteners work.

“You want that hook effect … sharp points are going to microscopically stick into the soles of your shoes, rather than rolling off the top.”

Etching can work in a similar way, chemically altering the existing surface to make it imperceptibly gritty. Etching can also be used to create pores in an existing surface, which is useful for areas such as machine shops, she said.

Be Smart With Surfactants

While keeping floor surfaces clean is one of the best ways to remove slip and fall hazards, cleaning them the wrong way can actually do more harm than good.

Failure to follow appropriate cleaning procedures can severely diminish a surface’s coefficient of friction.

Experts suggest that companies engage with their chemical suppliers, and discuss their flooring as well as the types of dirt or grease removal and disinfectant needs. Detergents – which can contain different types of surfactants — aren’t a one size fits all solution.

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Sometimes purchasers might be inclined to try to cover all their bases by buying the strongest product on the market, but that might mean adding unnecessary surfactants that make surfaces less slip resistant.

“Clearly identify the types of surfaces you’re using it for, the type of oil or dirt or debris you have, and whether or not you need a sanitizing step,” said Showerman.

“You’ve got to find the right balance.”

But that’s only half the battle. A significant problem experts see time and time again is that companies don’t understand how their flooring is being maintained on a day-to-day basis by front-line employees. Failure to follow appropriate cleaning procedures can severely diminish a surface’s coefficient of friction.

“This is where you’re seeing someone with a mop and bucket and they are just re-smearing that grease from one place to another. They put the dirty mop in the dirty bucket, the mop gets full of that emulsified grease and you’re smearing it across the room. In high grease areas, you have to replace with clean water consistently.”

In other cases, a worker without the proper training may grab the first detergent he finds, even if it’s meant for the equipment rather than the floor. Or perhaps he mixes equal parts detergent and water when he was supposed to only use 8 oz. of detergent for every five gallons of water.
Sometimes people will even over-concentrate the detergent on purpose, she added.

Peter Koch, safety management specialist, The MEMIC Group

“I see that in the food industry frequently,” said Showerman. “They find that the more detergent they leave on the floor, the easier it is to clean up next time … but then everyone’s slipping and falling like in a cartoon.”

A company could invest a significant amount in flooring improvements, only to have the benefits undone by improper detergent use or failure to follow recommended rinsing procedures.

It’s incumbent upon safety managers to reinforce that maintaining floor surfaces isn’t just a matter of housekeeping, but a key part of the company’s workplace safety program.

The Human Factor

When you’ve done everything possible to address hazards in the physical work environment, workers themselves remain the wildcard. Most employers routinely include slip and fall hazards in their safety awareness training or toolbox talk programs. But that training should go well beyond a general “watch where you walk” message, say experts.

“One of the most overlooked parts for employee safety is actually employee training,” said Peter Koch, safety management specialist at  The MEMIC Group.

“How do you train an employee to not slip and fall? I think many times that is wrapped in a “you have to be more careful” message, which is valid but nebulous and not very helpful — it means something different to everyone based on your risk tolerance as an individual.”

Koch’s employee training regimen revolves around four elements: surfaces, awareness, footwear and environment (SAFE).

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The first goal of the surface portion is just to get employees to start thinking about the different types of surfaces they walk on and how it can change throughout the work day. Koch said he likes to ask: “How many different types of surfaces did you have to walk on the get to this training room?”

The footwear piece of it is the most straightforward. Are your shoes designed for the work that you’re doing and the surfaces you’re walking on? Are they in good condition? Are the soles worn out?

There is no ASTM standard for measuring the performance of slip-resistant footwear, added Gallagher’s Showerman. So workers should be reminded that wearing the right shoe isn’t a guarantee — it’s just one piece of the solution.

Awareness, said Koch, may be the most challenging piece of the puzzle — helping people to think about their gait, what they’re carrying, what they’re doing, and simply where their heads are at any given moment.

“If you’re thinking about 15 things you have to get done by the end of the day, or you have a particularly challenging employee interaction coming up that day, or you had a fight with your girlfriend last night— or whatever it is — you’re not focused. Then you take that step through the icy patch, and now it relies completely on your athletic ability and luck to stay upright.”

Workers may not necessarily make the connection between personal factors and fall risk. Someone who has an ear infection or is taking certain medications, for example, may not even be aware that their balance might be compromised, putting them at higher risk for a fall.

Employees also should be reminded of how even normal daily stressors can contribute to risk. Everyone is under pressure to deliver more in less time. Everyone is rushing, everyone is stretched to their limits. Add the ever-present cellphone beeping and buzzing and demanding our attention and perhaps it’s a wonder slips and falls don’t happen even more often than they already do.

We’re so conditioned to react when the vibration goes off or the tone chimes in our pockets that we just grab it without thinking, Koch said.

“If you knowingly put yourself at risk by knowingly going quickly through an area with slip and fall exposures, it’s just Russian roulette – at some point you’re going to get broken.” — Peter Koch, safety management specialist, The MEMIC Group.

“Even that, in certain conditions, is going to be enough to put you on the ground.”

Awareness of environmental factors should also be part of the training, Koch said, especially in terms of what workers can’t control, like inclement weather.  He said the main thing he tries to impress upon people is to slow down in a high-risk environment.

“If you knowingly put yourself at risk by knowingly going quickly through an area with slip and fall exposures, it’s just Russian roulette – at some point you’re going to get broken.”

Koch says that getting people to put all of these facets of awareness together is where the training can really click.

The goal is that when they approach an area with a higher-risk surface, employees are thinking “for those few seconds or minutes that I’m going to be walking through it, I need to have a greater sense of awareness, I need to put away the mental [distractions] and focus on what I’m doing – don’t answer your phone, don’t answer your texts.”

Some employers are looking to address the human piece of the slip and fall puzzle by using training that goes far beyond hazard awareness. Active slip-prevention training focuses on body mechanics and teaches workers how to respond when they feel themselves begin to slip.

One such program revolves around the Slip Simulator, technology born of a research partnership between Virginia Tech researchers and UPS. The simulator that creates slippery and hazardous conditions in a controlled environment while participants walk in a harness so they can slip safely. An instructor offers real-time guidance on how to alter their movements to avoid falling.

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After mastering the initial technique, trainees face additional challenges related to their specific work environments, such as walking up ramps or turning wheels. A New Mexico security team practiced drawing firearms while standing on the simulator, which led to a change in how they wear their weapons. Workers at an Ohio refinery practiced stepping over pipes and turning large valves.

Clients of the program are reporting 60 to 80 percent reductions in accident rates.

The Road Ahead

A comprehensive slip and fall prevention plan is a must for employers, experts agreed, with clear, consistent procedures that empower employees to be a part of the solution.

“Employees play a very critical role,” said Liberty Mutual’s Maynard. “If they see a slip risk or a slipperiness issue, they need to be able to report it and they need to be able to get that corrected immediately. They have an important role in maintaining a safe facility and reducing risk themselves — be proactive, don’t walk by, clean it up.

“Any time you can involve the employee in solutions …. the likelihood of success of that intervention is higher.”

Maynard added that the best prevention plans will also be forward-looking.

“Understand where current safety performance is. Then make a roadmap to get better,” he said. “Emphasize where you’re doing well,” then identify opportunities to effect improvement, now and over the next three, four or five years.

“Prevention is too often reactive,” Maynard said. “We’ve got an issue and now what do we do? The goal is for companies to be proactive.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]