UK top court clears way for COVID-19 business insurance payments

The UK’s Supreme Court dismissed insurers’ appeals in the test case brought by the Financial Conduct Authority on behalf of policyholders.
UK top court clears way for COVID-19 business insurance payments

Small businesses, from restaurants to nightclubs and wedding planners to beauty parlours, on Friday won the right to insurance payouts after Britain's highest court ruled many policies should cover losses caused by coronavirus lockdowns.

Six of the world's largest commercial insurers — Hiscox, RSA, QBE, Argenta, Arch, and MS Amlin — argued many business interruption policies did not cover widespread disruption after government efforts to curb the virus from last March.

But the UK Supreme Court unanimously dismissed appeals by the insurers after scrutinising nondamage insurance policy clauses — which cover disease, denial-of-access-to-business-premises, and hybrid clauses — in a comprehensive victory for the regulator and policyholders.

The Financial Conduct Authority brought the closely watched test case on behalf of policyholders last June, saying it could affect 370,000 policyholders and 60 insurers, paving the way for an estimated £1.2 billion ($1.6 billion) in claims.

Alistair Handyside, chair of the Professional Association of Self-Caterers UK, said he was delighted by a judgement that would mean survival for many amidst a third lockdown.

Some policyholders, however, are weary.

"It would appear we have won another battle this morning ten months too late," said Murray Pulman, who runs The Posh Partridge cafe in Dorchester, southwest England.

"The war is not over, however," he said. "Getting payment, compensation, and costs ... is another whole new fight which begins today."

QBE faces late-payment claim

Sonia Campbell, a partner at law firm Mishcon de Reya who represents a group of policyholders, said she would be seeking damages for late payment from QBE. The Australian-listed insurer was not immediately available for comment.

Hiscox, MS Amlin, Argenta, and RSA said they would be paying claims as soon as possible. Arch stated that some of its policy wordings would now respond to pandemic claims.

Hiscox, whose shares dropped more than 5% before recovering, estimated its 2020 estimate for pandemic-related business interruption had risen by $48 million net of reinsurance, bringing total claims to £136 million.

Barclays analysts said the ruling was negative for insurers but no "game-changer".

The FCA said it would work with insurers to ensure they settled claims quickly and made interim payments if possible.

The case turned on the wordings of business interruption policies with clauses offering cover when insured premises cannot be accessed because of public authority restrictions, in the event of a notifiable disease within a specified radius and hybrid wordings.

Insurers said they were paying valid claims but that they could not provide limitless cover for losses when the bulk of an economy was shut down and people consigned to their homes in the toughest restrictions on public life since World War II.

London's High Court ruled last September that some insurers had been wrong to deny cover, prompting six insurers, the FCA, and the Hiscox Action Group of policyholders to challenge elements of the ruling they had lost. The case leapfrogged the Court of Appeal because of its critical nature.

Christopher Croft, CEO of the London & International Insurance Brokers’ Association, said the industry's reputation had been damaged. "We need to think hard about how we redress that," he said.

(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley and Carolyn Cohn; editing by Rachel Armstrong, Jane Merriman, and Louise Heavens.)