Environmental Liability

The Zika Battle’s Unintended Consequences

Worry about Zika’s devastating effects is leading to redoubled remediation efforts, but also potential liability claims.
By: | September 28, 2016 • 7 min read

More than 3,100 cases of Zika infection have been recorded in the U.S., most of those contracted due to international travel. South Carolina has 31 recorded cases and infection in every case appears to have happened overseas.

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But after four local residents were diagnosed with Zika, officials in one South Carolina county sought to contain its spread and arranged for an aerial spraying of the pesticide Naled, which kills the Aedes mosquito known to carry the Zika virus.

In their haste to halt the advance of the virus, Dorchester County officials gave inadequate public notice for an early Sunday morning spraying on August 28.

A local farmer didn’t get the alert and therefore didn’t shield her 43 beehives. Only when she discovered that nearly all her bees — as many as 3 million — were dead, did she figure out what happened.

Joe Peiser, EVP, head of casualty broking, Willis Towers Watson

Joe Peiser, EVP, head of casualty broking, Willis Towers Watson

The county immediately apologized for the lack of proper notice and said it will try to reimburse beekeepers after insurance adjusters determine the value of the loss.

The bee farmer suggested the figure will be vast as there is no easy replacement for lost bee colonies, honey and hives.

“There wouldn’t need to be, nor does a separate product exist to cover the municipality’s liability in this situation,” Joseph C. Peiser, executive vice president, head of casualty broking at Willis Towers Watson.

The county’s coverage should come under either a general liability program, or a pollution or environmental liability program, as the spraying and the unintended consequence of killing the bees is a form of negligence and property damage, he said.

“That is exactly what a general liability policy is designed to cover,” Peiser said.

Unintended Consequences

Ever since Zika enter the U.S. earlier this year, government officials tasked with protecting public health are in uncharted territory. Worry about Zika’s devastating effects on a developing baby in utero and the virus’s unique ability to transmit from human to human is leading to remediation efforts that have not been tried in years, if at all.

The above case was Dorchester County’s first such aerial spraying in 14 years, administrator Jason Ward told CNN a few days later. The hard-hit Florida district of Wynwood also initiated new aerial sprays late this summer. It looks like the approach worked.

“After mosquitoes persisted and infections continued despite ground-based spraying, aerial spraying knocked down mosquitoes rapidly and was associated with interrupting transmission of Zika in Wynwood,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a statement.

“When faced with the potentially devastating outcomes of microcephaly or other serious brain defects that Zika can cause during pregnancy, we must use the best available tools to prevent infection.

According to EPA assessments, when used properly, aerial spraying with Naled for mosquito control doesn’t pose a risk to people or the environment,” he added.

The honeybee case highlights the need for insurance brokers to work with clients to weigh all options and anticipate the unintended consequences. Start with the environmental liability program, sometimes called a pollution legal liability program, Peiser said.

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“Because they are spraying from the air, and that’s not from a specific site, it would be better if they have an environmental program that it is amended to include this type of operation,” he said.

Communities could add a carve-back on the pollution exclusion called ‘named perils and time element coverage.’ It can be in an umbrella policy, or the primary general liability policy, or both, Peiser said.

The ‘named perils’ portion offers coverage if the pollution is caused by one of the itemized events in the carve back, such as hostile fire, lightning or an overturned vehicle. It’s unlikely to provide coverage for this event, Peiser said.

“Because they are spraying from the air, and that’s not from a specific site, it would be better if they have an environmental program that it is amended to include this type of operation.” — Joseph Peiser, EVP and head of casualty broking, Willis Towers Watson

But the ‘time element’ portion should. This allows the general liability policy to cover an event when it’s known within a set time period (say 20 days) and reported to the insurer within a certain time (say 30 to 40 days), he said.

“I think the most important amendment is to the pollution exclusion to provide ‘time element’ pollution exclusion,” Peiser said. “If they do that, all scenarios should be covered.”

But as an added measure and in order to lessen the chance of argument with the insurer, one can also amend the ‘intentional acts exclusion’ so it does not apply to property damage as the result of reasonable force or activity, Peiser said.

To date, Peiser has yet to field questions or concerns about Zika but expects that he will.

Other Unexpected Zika Claims

Other brokers agree that the Zika virus is just gaining traction as a risk management concern. When the Aedes mosquito population begins to surge again next spring, more claims and questions may pop up. Brazil’s infection rate this winter is a likely litmus test of what the U.S. will experience next summer.

As cases of Zika increase, so too will related insurance claims.

“You’ve got to anticipate the negative and then prepare for it,” said Rick Vohden, SVP and education and public entity practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting.

Industries that could potentially be impacted by the Zika virus include health care providers and first responders, who could be exposed to blood and bodily fluids, and outdoor workers, who could be exposed to mosquito bites.

International business travelers and university staff and students studying abroad are also presenting new areas of concern, since Zika thrives in regions along the Equator.

Ample communications with employees and students may be the most important approach any business or government organization can take. Let people know what the dangers are in the area where they work and offer solutions to avoid contracting the virus, said David Marcus, managing director, public sector at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

“You’ve got to anticipate the negative and then prepare for it.” — Rick Vohden, SVP and education and public entity practice leader, Marsh Risk Consulting

Employees may sue if the employer does not provide adequate controls and they catch the disease, Peiser said.

“Whenever there is a pandemic you start to hear about infectious disease exclusions,” he said.

“Hotels, hospitals or universities want to make sure they don’t have an Infectious disease exclusion that is sometimes in a general liability policy,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s also in the excess workers’ comp policy if a business is self-insured.”

“We continually provide alerts to our clients that they need to be cognizant of the issue early because there is a realm of risk that you are probably going to be impacted by, if not this year, more significantly next year and I think 2018 will be worse than next year,” Vohden said

It is not too early for organizations and brokers to think through each solution and anticipate where it may cause another problem. For example, asking summertime workers to wear pants and long sleeved shirts for protection may expose them to heat exposure and heat exhaustion, Vohden said.

“So we are saying ‘here’s what you can do but if you do this, here’s your next group of consequences that we need to be wary of,” he said.

It is possible that workers’ compensation could come into play at some point.  A worker could make third party over claim and sue the municipality, as well as collect workers’ comp, Peiser said.

VIDEO: South Carolina’s aerial spray for mosquito control accidentally killed millions of honeybees. WCBD’s Sofia Arazoza reports.

Since there’s potential for employees to have occupational exposure to Zika and then transmit it to their spouse, that’s another liability to consider.

“That’s stringing the potential liability out pretty far, but the potential exists if you look at similar cases that occurred with asbestos litigation in the past,” Vohden said.

Marcus, at Gallagher, is a broker for public schools districts in Florida’s Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which are the frontlines for U.S. Zika transmissions this summer.

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There, students and staff were required to wear long sleeves and pants under uniforms and health officials passed out DEET products to students’ families and gave lessons on the best ways to apply it.

“It’s going to get larger before it gets smaller, just like any other disease,” Marcus said.

“There’s a full-out effort to communicate in south Florida right now to everybody on a daily basis and they are doing a phenomenal job.”

The Zika virus was first identified in monkeys in the Zika forests of Uganda in 1947 and later found in humans in 1952, according to the World Health Organization. The first large outbreak of disease caused by Zika infection was in 2007.

Zika virus is related to the dengue, yellow fever and West Nile viruses, but it is the only virus in this group so far to be capable of human-to-human transmission through sexual contact and to cause significant birth defects to babies in utero.

Visit the CDC’s website for the agency’s latest count on Zika cases in the U.S.

Juliann Walsh is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

Robotics Risk

Rise of the Cobots

Collaborative robots, known as cobots, are rapidly expanding in the workforce due to their versatility. But they bring with them liability concerns.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 5 min read

When the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto hired mobile collaborative robots to bolster security patrols, the goal was to improve costs and safety.

Once the autonomous robotic guards took up their beats — bedecked with alarms, motion sensors, live video streaming and forensics capabilities — no one imagined what would happen next.

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For some reason,  a cobots’ sensors didn’t pick up the movement of a toddler on the sidewalk who was trying to play with the 5-foot-tall, egg-shaped figure.

The 300-pound robot was programmed to stop for shoppers, but it knocked down the child and then ran over his feet while his parents helplessly watched.

Engaged to help, this cobot instead did harm, yet the use of cobots is growing rapidly.

Cobots are the fastest growing segment of the robotics industry, which is projected to hit $135.4 billion in 2019, according to tech research firm IDC.

“Robots are embedding themselves more and more into our lives every day,” said Morgan Kyte, a senior vice president at Marsh.

“Collaborative robots have taken the robotics industry by storm over the past several years,” said Bob Doyle, director of communications at the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

When traditional robots joined the U.S. workforce in the 1960s, they were often assigned one specific task and put to work safely away from humans in a fenced area.

Today, they are rapidly being deployed in the automotive, plastics, electronics assembly, machine tooling and health care industries due to their ability to function in tandem with human co-workers.

More than 24,000 robots valued at $1.3 billion were ordered from North American companies last year, according to the RIA.

Cobots Rapidly Gain Popularity

Cobots are cheaper, more versatile and lighter, and often have a faster return on investment compared to traditional robots. Some cobots even employ artificial intelligence (AI) so they can adapt to their environment, learn new tasks and improve on their skills.

Bob Doyle, director of communications, Robotic Industry Association

Their software is simple to program, so companies don’t need a computer programmer, called a robotic integrator, to come on site to tweak duties. Most employees can learn how to program them.

While the introduction of cobots into the workplace can bring great productivity gains, it also introduces risk mitigation challenges.

“Where does the problem lie when accidents happen and which insurance covers it?” asked attorney Garry Mathiason, co-chair of the robotics, AI and automation industry group at the law firm Littler Mendelson PC in San Francisco.

“Cobots are still machines and things can go awry in many ways,” Marsh’s Kyte said.

“The robot can fail. A subcomponent can fail. It can draw the wrong conclusions.”

If something goes amiss, exposure may fall to many different parties:  the manufacturer of the cobot, the software developer and/or the purchaser of the cobot, to name a few.

Is it a product defect? Was it an issue in the base code or in the design? Was something done in the cobot’s training? Was it user error?

“Cobots are still machines and things can go awry in many ways.” — Morgan Kyte, senior vice president, Marsh

Is it a workers’ compensation case or a liability issue?

“If you get injured in the workplace, there’s no debate as to liability,” Mathiason said.

But if the employee attributes the injury to a poorly designed or programmed machine and sues the manufacturer of the equipment, that’s not limited by workers’ comp, he added.

Garry Mathiason, co-chair, robotics, AI and automation industry group, Littler Mendelson PC

In the case of a worker killed by a cobot in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2015, the worker’s spouse filed suit against five of the companies responsible for manufacturing the machine.

“It’s going to be unique each time,” Kyte said.

“The issue that keeps me awake at night is that people are so impressed with what a cobot can do, and so they ask it to do a task that it wasn’t meant to perform,” Mathiason said.

Privacy is another consideration.

If the cobot records what is happening around it, takes pictures of its environment and the people in it, an employee or customer might claim a privacy violation.

A public sign disclosing the cobot’s ability to record video or take pictures may be a simple solution. And yet, it is often overlooked, Mathiason said.

Growing Pains in the Industry

There are going to be growing pains as the industry blossoms in advance of any legal and regulatory systems, Mathiason said.

He suggests companies take several mitigation steps before introducing cobots to the workplace.

First, conduct a safety audit that specifically covers robotics. Make sure to properly investigate the use of the technology and consider all options. Run a pilot program to test it out.

Most importantly, he said, assign someone in the organization to get up to speed on the technology and then continuously follow it for updates and new uses.

The Robotics Industry Association has been working with the government to set up safety standards. One employee can join a cobot member association to receive the latest information on regulations.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about this technology and people see so many things that could go wrong,” Mathiason said.

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“But if you handle it properly with the safety audit, the robotics audit, and pay attention to what the standards are, it’s going to be the opposite; there will be fewer problems.

“And you might even see in your experience rating that you are going to [get] a better price to the policy,” he added.

Without forethought, coverage may slip through the cracks. General liability, E&O, business interruption, personal injury, cyber and privacy claims can all be involved.

AIG’s Lexington Insurance introduced an insurance product in 2015 to address the gray areas cobots and robots create. The coverage brings together general and products liability, robotics errors and omissions, and risk management services, all three of which are tailored for the robotics industry. Minimum premium is $25,000.

Insurers are using lessons learned from the creation of cyber liability policies and are applying it to robotics coverage, Kyte said.

“The robotics industry has been very safe for the last 30 years,” RIA’s Doyle said. “It really does have a good track record and we want that to continue.” &

Juliann Walsh is a staff writer at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]