London judges have ruled that some of the world’s biggest insurers were wrong to reject tens of thousands of claims from small firms battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said on Tuesday.
The FCA, which brought the test case against insurers in a closely-watched lawsuit estimated to affect 370,000 businesses and billions of pounds of insurance claims, said the court had found in favor of policyholders’ arguments on the majority of key issues in a complex, 162-page judgment.
The watchdog brought the case against eight insurers, including Hiscox, RSA, QBE and Zurich , in June to clarify whether 21 types of business interruption (BI) policy wordings should pay out for closures and disruption caused by the pandemic.
The regulator has estimated the case could affect more than 60 insurers and 700 different types of policies because many insurance policies have similar wording.
But the complexity of the judgment was underlined by the response from the insurers’ trade body, the Association of British Insurers (ABI). It said the judgment “divided evenly” between insurers and policyholders on the main issues.
Hiscox said fewer than one third of its 34,000 UK BI policies would have to pay out, meaning the net cost to the group would be less than 100 million pounds ($129 million) – compared with initial guidance of up to 250 million pounds.
Its shares were trading 12.6% higher at 1140 GMT.
RSA said some of its policy interpretations had been upheld by the courts and some had not. But its shares rose 5% as it restored its canceled 2019 dividend
The other six insurers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Policyholders were jubilant, however.
“This verdict is just what we’ve been waiting for,” said Michael Kill, the chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) trade body.
“The enforced lockdown since March has created unthinkable financial turmoil and stress for many business owners. This verdict gives some reassurance that these businesses will get the payments they deserve to help them survive this period.”
Other policyholder groups called it a “landmark victory.”
Small businesses – from cafes, wedding planners and beauty parlors to events businesses – said they faced ruin after attempts to claim compensation for business losses during the deadly pandemic, which has prompted the most stringent government restrictions in peacetime history, were rejected by insurers.
Some have signed up to parallel group actions, alleging legitimate claims have been rejected. But the FCA case offered a new legal route by pooling together a group of company policies and taking insurers to court with minimal costs to businesses.
The case was designed to quickly clarify whether the pandemic and a government lockdown in March should trigger BI policies, which provide cover when insured premises cannot be used because of restrictions imposed by a public authority and in the event of a notifiable disease or infection.
Insurers have argued that most policies did not cover the pandemic, that they were paying out valid claims as quickly as possible and that being forced to stump up for all losses from the pandemic would be catastrophic for the insurance industry, and its backup, the reinsurance industry.
If the judgment is appealed it could leapfrog straight to the Supreme Court, the highest UK court, to reduce delay for buckling businesses, lawyers say.
($1 = 0.7744 pounds)