Insurer Liable for Asbestos Claims Decades Later, Decides Court

Insurers and insureds square off in court on policy disputes involving legacy liability for asbestos claims.
By: | January 23, 2019 • 4 min read

During the 1970s mining of vermiculite — a mineral most commonly used in insulation — several workers were injured due to asbestos exposure. It wasn’t until nearly three decades later, however, that the workers started presenting claims against their employer.

Those injured by the asbestos sued the state of Montana as early as 2002, alleging that the state knowingly allowed employees to work in vermiculite mines. In the lawsuit, the workers claimed the state knew as early as 1942 that the exposure was “in excess of safe limits.”

The suit also mentioned that an inspection in the 1950s reported a “considerable toxicity” in the air. The suit claimed the state failed in its duty to protect its workers.

While examining the suit, the state found documentation showing it held a general liability insurance policy with Berkshire Hathaway’s National Indemnity Co. from 1973 to 1975. The policy was written to protect the state from personal-injury and other claims. The state notified National Indemnity immediately of the potential liability and said the company should be liable for the suits’ costs.

In 2009, Montana reached a $43 million settlement with the miners. National Indemnity, at first, agreed to cover the settlements, even paying $16 million, but then later retracted the offer. It believed that the 1975 policy did not cover asbestos-related claims and believed it was not liable for the settlement.

In court, however, the state district judge ruled that National Indemnity breached its duty by failing to protect the state of Montana against damage claims made by asbestos victims. Therefore, the insurer could not deny settlement coverage.

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The judge also looked forward to potential claims. More than 850 additional claimants not included in the 2009 settlement had sued the state as of 2015. Like the 2009 ruling, any additional settlements would equally fall under the National Indemnity policy, the judge ruled.

Scorecard: National Indemnity Co. is responsible for the $43 million settlement stemming from asbestos-related claims dating as far back as 1973. Additionally, the insurer is responsible for any new settlements stemming from the incidence.

Takeaway: Past policies still hold firm and insurers may still be held liable, even 45 years later, if the cause of loss occurred during the policy period. &

Autumn Heisler is the digital producer and a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

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