Chicago businesses can proceed with lawsuits seeking COVID-19 payouts from Society Insurance, judge rules

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

A Chicago federal judge has rejected a bid by Society Insurance to toss a mountain of lawsuits filed by Billy Goat Tavern, Purple Pig, Lettuce Entertain You and other businesses hit hard by the pandemic, a departure from recent rulings in other courts that sided with insurance companies.

The Monday ruling gives hope to dozens of restaurants, bars and other businesses — including many in Chicago and its suburbs — whose claims for business interruption insurance were denied by the company after COVID-19 and government-mandated shutdowns forced them to close or severely curtail operations. Their cases can now move forward in court.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity to have our case heard and hopefully get to a jury trial,” said Bill Stavrou, owner and president of Valley Lodge Tavern, a casual dining spot with locations in Glenview and Wilmette.

Valley Lodge was among dozens of businesses to file suit against Society Insurance, which is based in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and is a popular insurer for the hospitality industry in the Midwest. Hundreds more suits were filed against other insurers across the country when claims for business interruption coverage were denied.

More than 80% of rulings on pandemic-related business interruption cases have granted motions by insurance companies to dismiss the cases, according to a tracker maintained by University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In August, all the cases against Society Insurance were consolidated in a multidistrict litigation before Judge Edmond Chang. He selected three bellwether cases — filed by Valley Lodge Tavern, Chicago’s Big Onion Tavern Group and Wisconsin-based Rising Dough — to represent the group, and on Monday denied Society’s motions to dismiss the business interruption claims for those cases.

The ruling applies to all the cases before his court.

Society said it was disappointed and is exploring its options.

“This is an early, preliminary ruling, and does not resolve the merits,” the company said in an emailed statement. “Society will continue to vigorously defend its interests in the litigation.”

The company said it was pleased with Chang’s ruling that it shouldn’t be liable for coverage under the civil authority clause of the policy, which applies when government prohibits access to a premises, or the contamination provision.

The central issue in many of the cases is whether the existence of the coronavirus and government-mandated shutdowns to prevent its spread constitute the kind of direct physical damage or loss to property that triggers business interruption claims. Normally such coverage applies when property is damaged in fires or natural disasters.

Chang, in his ruling, said a reasonable jury could interpret restaurant capacity caps and the inability of businesses to fully use their properties as a direct physical loss covered by the language of Society’s policies.

The insurance industry has said that policies are not meant to cover pandemics, and the enormity of business losses would bankrupt the industry. Many policies have explicit virus or pandemic exclusions.

Society’s policies do not have such exclusions.

Bob Duncan, an attorney representing the Billy Goat Tavern in one of the lawsuits covered by the multidistrict litigation, said he appreciated that Chang considered the language open to interpretation and that businesses still suffering huge losses from the pandemic have a chance at insurance relief.

“We’re very pleased with the thoughtful and thorough opinion that acknowledged the possibility of coverage for the losses suffered by these restaurants and bars,” Duncan said. “My hope and expectation is that we continue to move forward expeditiously. The insureds are facing a very real and existential threat.”