What if your heating oil tank leaked and the contamination had to be cleaned up?
What if a contractor spilled tar by accident, requiring a cleanup?
What if you own a small dry cleaner, and your machinery leaks dangerous dry-cleaning fluid into the ground?
Who would pay for these potentially expensive environmental cleanups. In each case, the answer may be an insurance company.
Homeowner and commercial insurance policies respond to many environmental cleanup claims. In the case of the heating tank, the homeowner would file a claim against his homeowner's policy. In the case of the tar, the contractor would file a claim against a special environmental insurance policy made just for contractors. And in the case of the dry cleaner, the owner would file a claim with the applicable general comprehensive liability policies.
Many homeowners and small business owners are unaware that insurance can cover these claims. Of course, not every claim is covered. To be covered, a claim must fall within the definition of a "covered claim" as defined under the insurance policy.
Every state has a wealth of judicial decisions that assist professionals in determining what is and what is not covered. In addition, every state also has a Department of Insurance that approves the language contained in many policies and establishes rules of conduct that apply to insurance companies doing business in their state.
Often insurance companies deny claims that should not be denied. The bottom line is simple: if the claim is significant, don't just take "no" for an answer.
This is a common mistake that policy holders make. No sometimes really means no. Sometimes, however, it means maybe, especially if you hire a lawyer.
In my practice I handle many insurance claims for homeowners and small business people facing environmental claims. Without exception, the cases always start the same way: with the insurance company denying the claim.
In the great majority of instances, we find that we are able to secure coverage even after the company first says no. Many other experienced lawyers have the same level of success.
If you find that your carrier said no to an environmental claim, your policy may very well provide you with rights to appeal and to arbitrate. Be sure to understand these options and to exercise them within the time periods set forth in the policy. If you fail to do what the policy requires, you may lose valuable and important rights.
Many policies provide that certain things must occur before you can sue the carrier for improperly denying a claim. And such suits must be filed within a specified time period, or the right may be forever lost.
The environmental insurance coverage business is specialized. If you need to retain a lawyer, get the lawyer involved as early in the process as possible. Remember, the insurance companies have unlimited numbers of lawyers. So should you to ensure that your rights are protected.
If you have to sue an insurance company, many times you may be entitled to receive your attorneys fees as part of an award, if you win. Also, in cases where the insurance company has acted in very bad faith, punitive damages, designed to punish the insurer, may also be available to you.