Coronavirus, Contracts and the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and J. Michael Luttig

17 August 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

Plaintiff lawyers want insurance companies to absorb the cost to business of the Covid-19 pandemic—and they’ve had some early successes. A federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., last week allowed salon and restaurant owners to proceed with a lawsuit claiming that Covid shutdowns constituted “direct physical loss or damage” covered by business-interruption policies. California lawmakers introduced legislation in June that would establish a presumption that Covid-19 qualifies for such coverage.

Yet however sympathetic their clients, the lawyers’ efforts are unconstitutional and dangerous. They threaten to bankrupt the insurance industry, on which American businesses and consumers depend.

Most commercial policies include coverage for business interruption caused by physical damage to the business assets. If a car dealership suffers tornado damage to its roof, it can recover repair costs and losses incurred while the premises are closed. But disease isn’t “physical loss or damage,” as that phrase is ordinarily understood or typically intended in insurance contracts. Most such contracts expressly exclude such losses. That’s because losses associated with communicable diseases—like those from war or nuclear accident—aren’t insurable. The risks are unknowable, preventing the calculation of a premium sufficient to cover the losses if the event occurs.

As the Supreme Court observed in Los Angeles Department of Water and Power v. Manhart (1978), “drastic changes” in the legal rules governing insurance policies can “jeopardize the insurer’s solvency and, ultimately, the insureds’ benefits.” If the Kansas City lawsuit and hundreds like it succeed in redefining “direct physical loss” to include Covid-induced business closures, insurers would be forced to cover losses that were never underwritten. The industry has enough reserves to pay up to $800 billion for losses covered by home, auto and business policies. Uncovered Covid-19 losses are estimated in the trillions.

Fortunately, there are significant constitutional limits on the ability of either courts or legislatures to change private insurance contracts. The Constitution forbids the states to “impair the obligation of contracts.” As Chief Justice John Marshall observed in Ogden v. Saunders (1827), the power of contract impairment “had been used to such an excess by the state legislatures, as to break in upon the ordinary intercourse of society and destroy all confidence between man and man.” The effect was “not only to impair commercial intercourse and threaten the existence of credit, but to sap the morals of the people and destroy the sanctity of private faith.”

The Contracts Clause has been invoked less frequently since the ratification of the 14th Amendment, whose Due Process Clause has become the preferred vehicle for challenging state regulatory actions. But the justices made clear in Allied Structural Steel Co. v. Spannaus (1978) that it still “limits the power of a State to abridge existing contractual relationships.” In that case, Minnesota rewrote pensions, requiring an employer to pay $185,000 to nine employees who were terminated before their benefits vested under the company’s plan. The court struck down the law as a “severe” and “unreasonably conditioned” retroactive alteration of agreed-upon obligations. Sveen v. Melin (2018), another Minnesota case, upheld a state-mandated invalidation of life-insurance beneficiary designations on divorce—but only because the impairment of the parties’ contractual obligations was minimal. The policyholder could redesignate the former spouse and “reverse the effect of the . . . statute with the stroke of a pen.”

Even during the Depression, the high court was skeptical of state laws that impaired private contracts. Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934) upheld a state law that extended the time allowed for redeeming real property from foreclosure under existing mortgages, but only because the redemption extension was a reasonable temporary condition.

State legislatures that attempt to abridge commercial insurance contracts today may argue that they are meeting a Depression-caliber economic emergency. Yet although the court reaffirmed in Spannaus that states’ ability to impair contract obligations is greater during an emergency, it also held that such laws must be “tailored to the emergency that it is designed to meet” and impose only “reasonable” conditions. Legislative changes establishing liability for Covid-19 losses would completely abrogate existing contracts and impose immediate, permanently binding, ruinous contractual obligations that the parties specifically contracted not to cover. They would almost certainly be struck down under the Contracts Clause.

Federal efforts to impose new contracts on insurance companies would also be unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge. The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits Congress from imposing retroactive liabilities that, as the court put it in Landgraf v. USI Film Productions (1994), “increase a party’s liability for past conduct, or impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed.” In Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel (1998), the court struck down a law imposing new pension liabilities on employers based on decades-old contracts. The justices couldn’t agree on a rationale for their ruling: A plurality saw it as an unconstitutional taking without just compensation. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that it violated due process. He noted that political pressures tempt lawmakers “to use retroactive legislation as a means of retribution against unpopular groups or individuals.”

Businesses, especially small ones, have suffered terribly because of the Covid-19 virus. Many likely won’t survive. But shifting the burden to the insurance industry by either judicial rewriting or legislatively abrogating insurance contracts would be unconstitutional, especially since the losses have been largely caused by government decrees. Congress has already provided enormous financial assistance to American businesses—the appropriate means of compensating losses suffered from the government’s shutdown of the economy.

Because the litigation threat is existential, the insurance industry should do more than defend specific lawsuits. It should seek declaratory judgments now, establishing the limits of their potential liability. It also should work to convince federal and state lawmakers that they neither should nor constitutionally could abrogate and rewrite private insurance contracts.

Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Luttig was general counsel of the Boeing Co., 2006-20. He served as a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 1991-2006.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-contracts-and-the-constitution-11597705464

Lawsuits Needn’t Block Recovery

Congress has the power to limit coronavirus liability while regulators develop rules to control contagion.

By J. Michael Luttig and David B. Rivkin, Jr.

20 May 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

As Congress considers another Covid-19 rescue bill, the usual partisan divide has opened over limiting pandemic-related tort liabilities. Republicans and business owners argue that litigation will hamstring recovery. Trial lawyers, unions and Democrats counter that liability limits would encourage businesses to endanger employees and consumers. The Senate Republican leadership proposes immunity for all businesses that comply with public-health guidelines except in cases of “gross negligence” and willful misconduct.

Republicans’ approach is appealing in theory, but in practice it can’t be implemented without detailed regulatory standards—which in the case of Covid-19 won’t be written for some time. Rather than permanently change liability standards based on incomplete information about the virus, it would be wiser to enact an immediate but temporary immunity. That would permit the economy to begin reopening while allowing time for federal regulators to promulgate standards on which long-term immunity could be conditioned.

The existing tort liability system, which rests mostly on state statutory and common law, has few virtues and many flaws. It is inefficient and often arbitrarily imposes liability. Tort litigation, unlike regulatory standards and enforcement, is largely unconstrained by due process and other constitutional limits. The results can be crippling for small businesses, which can’t afford protracted litigation, and even large companies have to settle meritless or frivolous lawsuits. The system is driven by jackpot-justice incentives.

This system is particularly ill-equipped for dealing with Covid-19, which affects the whole economy. Yet hundreds of lawsuits are already pending against universities, processing plants, manufacturing, mass-transportation companies and other businesses. Plaintiff lawyers are petitioning legislatures to rewrite or courts to reinterpret insurance policies, which specifically exclude pandemic-related liabilities, in an effort to obtain large recoveries. While such efforts are constitutionally suspect, these lawsuits won’t die easily.

The notion that businesses will act recklessly if Congress affords liability relief ignores the good-faith compliance culture of American enterprises and the regulatory environment in which they operate. Businesses have strong incentives against even negligent behavior, which would cause bad publicity and customer distrust. We’ve seen many announcements in recent weeks about what businesses are doing to keep customers and employees safe. Bad actors can and will be held to account by states and municipalities using police and regulatory powers to fine, close or even prosecute those that operate dangerously. An elaborate system of federal and state workmen’s compensation provides additional protection.

Tort law is primarily a state matter, but it’s well-established that Congress can intervene via its power to regulate interstate commerce. Federal law has provided tort liability protections to firearms makers and for nuclear power. Congress also enacted laws to limit liabilities arising out of Y2K—like Covid-19, a specific event that was thought to have potentially calamitous economic consequences.

The Supreme Court has sustained congressional authority to sweep aside state policies, statutes and procedures that impair interstate commerce, beginning with Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), which affirmed federal pre-eminence in regulating interstate navigation. In New York v. Beretta (2008), which upheld the limitations on liability for firearms makers, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Congress’s authority includes the power to ban state tort lawsuits that “are a direct threat” to specific industries.

While there are legitimate doubts—which we share—that the Commerce Clause’s original meaning encompasses intrastate economic activities, the high court has embraced this view since 1942, when it held in Wickard v. Filburn that the federal government could ban growing wheat for personal consumption because it impaired a wheat-production scheme created by federal statute. The justices also asserted in Gonzales v. Raich (2005) that the Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate intrastate activities that “substantially affect interstate commerce.” Those precedents are enough to allow Congress to protect businesses with local footprints, such as beauty salons or restaurants, that buy products or supplies in interstate commerce.

Senate Republicans should also propose to make protection against tort liability a precondition for states and localities to receive nearly $1 trillion in the new Covid-19 rescue bill. In National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), the ObamaCare case, the Supreme Court limited Congress’s ability to coerce states into adopting new policies by threatening to withdraw money for existing programs. Since this money is new, that won’t pose an obstacle. Using its spending and Commerce Clause powers, Congress can promulgate a variety of regulatory schemes that would replace current federal and state statutory and common-law liabilities for Covid-19 and that would survive litigation challenges.

Making liability protection work will require regulation to evolve along with scientific understanding of Covid-19. Current federal, state and local guidelines, including those published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are informed exclusively by medical considerations and do not reflect traditional regulatory criteria such as cost and feasibility of implementation, and are too ambiguous and inconclusive to be a proper basis for imposing or limiting Covid-19-related liabilities. New, industry-specific guidelines will have to be developed by agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

OSHA and other federal agencies have the expertise to evaluate scientific, practical and cost-effective standards governing operations of a wide range of businesses. What they need is new statutory authority to issue safe-harbor guidelines for businesses that pre-empt tort liability under state law. Companies and trade associations would work with OSHA and propose industry- or business-specific guidelines to the agency, such as for meat packing plants or package sorting facilities. OSHA would promptly review each proposal, make necessary modifications, and then issue it as an immediately effective regulation with the legal force to override lawsuit liability. Businesses that comply with these regulations can rest assured that they’ve met their legal obligations.

Such considered Covid-19 liability reform—temporary immunity while businesses reopen, followed by promulgation of comprehensive federal regulatory guidelines—would be constitutional and consistent with federalist values. It would protect public health while enabling a prompt and full economic recovery.

Mr. Luttig is a former general counsel of the Boeing Co. He served as a judge on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 1991-2006. Mr. Rivkin practices appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/lawsuits-neednt-block-recovery-11589993211