Riots, unrest, insurrection: what does insurance cover when society wreaks havoc?

October 13, 2022 – Since the beginning of human history, people have come together to take a stand. When people turn their beliefs into actions, it can lead to wars, insurgencies, riots, civil disobedience, and protests, all of which can lead to damages, injuries, lawsuits, and insurance claims.

The past few years have witnessed notable public incidents including the events in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021, the Ukraine War, protests for women’s rights in Iran, Indian Farmer’s Protest, COVID Protests -19 and the MeToo and Black Lives Matter. movements.

While these incidents are usually at the forefront of political discussion and debate, the labels that are applied to these events can also have significant insurance implications.

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Some insurance policies contain provisions eliminating liability coverage for damage caused by certain types of events – including “riots”, “civil unrest” and “insurrections” – or limiting the amount of cover available for these events.

A problem can arise, however, when the courts try to determine how to define an event for insurance purposes. After all, the same event can be characterized in different ways, even when the event is widely publicized and captured on video and photos.

Take the events in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021, for example. A CNN article from January 7, 2022 ( looks back on that day and describes the events as an “insurrection”. Meanwhile, Fox News is bundling its stories about the events of January 6, 2021 under the heading “Capitol Protests”, but published a recent story ( calling the events “Capitol Protests”. Riot.”

While making fine distinctions between protests, riots, and insurgencies might only seem relevant to those who want to encourage their favorite political party, rightly or wrongly, the distinctions can be very important for insurance policies, which typically use wording precision which has no political character. filiation. Therefore, determining whether events similar to those that occurred on January 6, 2021 qualify as a protest, riot or insurrection could have serious financial consequences for those harmed by such events.

Courts are expected to scrutinize the exact words used in an insurance policy. When the words used by the insurance policy are not specifically defined in the policy itself, courts often turn to dictionaries, encyclopedias and common law definitions to determine how these events should be labeled.

For example, in the 1992 California Court of Appeals case, North Bay Schools Ins. Authority v. Industrial Indemnity Co., a group of youths broke into two different schools at night, ransacked rooms and set fire to buildings. A dispute arose between the insured and the insurer as to whether these incidents constituted a “riot”.

The North Bay court looked at various dictionary and common law definitions to conclude that a riot “refers to criminal activity and, like the common law definition, requires a public disorder. The term therefore does not include crimes committed by groups acting from public view.” Based on these standardized definitions, the court held that nighttime vandalism did not constitute a “riot” because the events had no not committed in public.

Another common phrase found in these exclusions is “civil unrest”.

For example, in the 1974 case of the United States 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Pan American World Airways v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., insurers argued that a civil disturbance exclusion should apply to the bar cover for a commercial plane hijacking.

Two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked a flight and forced the crew to divert the plane to a different destination where other PFLP members were waiting and boarded the plane with explosives. The hijackers forced the crew to fly the plane to a new destination, and during this leg of the journey the explosive fuses were ignited but did not detonate immediately. After the plane landed at the next destination, the passengers were evacuated and the plane exploded.

“[t]there is no authority for the proposition that civil unrest [is anything] other than [a] local, domestic troubles[].”

The court endorsed the trial court’s adoption of the common law rule that “a ‘civil unrest’ is ‘essentially a kind of domestic disturbance’, referring to disturbances which ‘occur between fellow citizens or in the boundaries of a community “.”

By refusing to apply the exclusion, the court focused on the location of the incident. Because the hijacking took place over London on a flight from Brussels to New York, and the plane was diverted to Beirut and then Cairo, the court ruled that the incident as a whole was not “national” with respect to policies issued to Pan American in the United States. . The court concluded that “civil unrest does not include a loss occurring in the skies of two continents”.

The court’s analysis was factual and looked closely at the definition of “civil unrest” in reaching its decision.

There are also exclusions that focus on damage caused by “insurrection”. In the 1983 Southern District of New York case, Holiday Inns, Inc. v. Aetna Ins. Co., various militia groups fought for control of a newly developed residential area in Beirut.

For six months, the various groups of militiamen clash and take control of buildings in the city to establish their bases, including the insured hotel Holiday Inn. As a result, the Holiday Inn suffered significant damage. It was “hit by rockets; windows had been smashed; there was fire damage inside the multi-storey rooms; and looting had taken place”.

The court adopted the common law principle enunciated in the Pan Am case that “‘insurrection’ for insurance purposes means “(1) a violent uprising of a group or movement (2) acting with the specific aim of overthrowing the constituted government and seizing its powers.” While the six months of fighting involved a struggle for territory between many militias, the court held that it was not a an “insurrection”.

The court was not convinced that these militias were “groups[s] or movement[s] …acting for the specific purpose of overthrowing the constituted government and seizing its powers. Instead, the court determined that they were “domestic gangs” concerned with “preserving[ing] a status quo that favored their interests” and “the enlargement[ing] their territory. »

Because the court found no evidence that these groups were attempting to overthrow an established government and seize its power, it ruled that this was not an “insurgency”.

It can be easy to refer to current events in the world today as a “riot”, “civil unrest”, “insurrection”, etc. without thinking too much about it. However, these labels may not be applied as easily in an insurance context, where long-standing dictionary and case law definitions are likely to carry much more weight than the political affiliations of authors.

Because some policies contain provisions eliminating liability coverage for damage caused by “riots”, “civil unrest” and “insurrections”, or limiting the amount of cover available for these events, it is important to consult your insurance policy and state rules and regulations. when chaos strikes. Unfortunately, if history is our guide, confrontation and anger are likely to continue to flare up from time to time. When it causes damage and injury and insurance coverage is at issue, dictionary definitions will carry more weight than the opinions that political commentators generate.

Erin Mindoro Ezra is a regular insurance coverage columnist for Reuters Legal News and Westlaw Today.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and non-partisanship by principles of trust. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Erin Mindoro Ezra

Erin Mindoro Ezra manages Berger Kahn’s Southern Orange County office in Lake Forest, California, focusing on insurance coverage and labor and employment. She represents and advises clients with respect to insurance coverage, particularly liability insurance, and advises clients in connection with wage and hour disputes, investigations, discrimination, retaliation and other matters of litigation. ‘use. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Jamie L. Rice

Jamie L. Rice is a partner in the Southern Orange County office of Berger Kahn, focusing on insurance coverage, sworn examinations, labor and employment. She has advised insurance company clients regarding insurance obligations under personal and commercial policies and has assisted commercial clients in dealing with changing employment practices and requirements in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Walker Macon

Walker Macon is a partner at Berger Kahn, specializing in insurance coverage, insurance litigation, commercial and entertainment contracts, and labor and employment. He has advised insurance company clients regarding coverage obligations under personal and commercial policies, represented insurance company clients in coverage-related disputes, and assisted business and entertainment clients regarding various contractual and practical needs and employment requirements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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