Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg is the latest Tampa Bay area eatery to sue its insurer over denied business interruption claims.
Ceviche entered into an insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London last year for coverage through July 15, 2020. The policy included coverage for suspended operations prompted by “civil authority.”
Like restaurants throughout the state, Ceviche was forced to close temporarily due to COVID-19 destructions and then, when allowed to reopen, was forced to do so at limited capacity.
As such, the restaurant filed a claim with its insurer to cover lost revenue. In a lawsuit filed in Pinellas County Court Sept. 21, Ceviche describes the claim denial a “blatant breach of its contractual obligations.” Now, the restaurant seeks a court order declaring its business losses are covered under its insurance policy and damages for breach of contract.
Ceviche is not alone.
Counter Culture, a popular Tampa restaurant, filed a similar lawsuit after her insurer, Scottsdale Insurance, a unit of Nationwide Insurance, denied her claim arguing, as in the case with Ceviche, that a virus-related closure was not covered.
But Ceviche’s claim might be different. That restaurant claims in its lawsuit that its policy does not include an exclusion for virus-related closures.
Counter Culture’s did.
In excerpts from Counter Culture’s policy, Scottsdale points out an exception to coverage.
“We will not pay for loss or damage caused by or resulting from any virus, bacterium or other microorganism that induces or is capable of inducing physical distress, illness or disease,” the policy read.
While Ceviche claims they had no such carve out, the lawsuit contains only a “face page” outlining coverage, which does not include the details and fine print outlining what is or is not covered.
Business interruption insurance is commonly obtained to cover expenses like rent or payroll when the business is unable to operate. But stores and restaurants nationwide are getting the same rejections.
An NBC affiliate in the San Francisco Bay area documented several businesses who were facing the same challenge. One of them, insured by Northfield Insurance Company, cited the exact same language Scottsdale used to defend its decision.
But business owners argue this situation is unprecedented and isn’t specifically contemplated in existing policies. The policies don’t mention forced government shutdowns. So while virus may land on the exclusionary list, there’s an argument to be made the closures were due to government shutdown, not a virus contamination.
In the midst of statewide COVID-related shutdowns, even insurers noted there was a major problem looming and called for a federal bailout.
“Only the federal government can be the bridge for a crisis of this proportion,” asserted David A. Sampson, President and CEO of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association in late April.
He claimed the potential losses could overwhelm the industry without federal help. The industry estimated that for businesses with fewer than 100 employees, closure losses could soar to as much as $431 billion per month. Premiums were estimated to be just $4.5 billion per month.
At that time, fear was already surging that businesses may be carved out in their business interruption policies.
“All business interruption policies are written differently, said Office of Insurance Regulation Commissioner Davie Altmaier in April. He said most policies do not address a “pandemic such as COVID-19.”
Now, courts are being bombarded with claims seeking clarification among hopeful businesses and a worried insurance sector.
Florida Politics reporter A.G. Gancarski contributed to this report.