Fire was the major peril insured by the insurance industry over a hundred years ago. In the tradition that is still commonplace today, insurers wrote specific exclusions into the insurance contracts which limited when they had to pay for loss caused by fire. I guess my friends along the coasts of Mississippi and Texas could relate when they found their all-risk insurance policies which cover hurricanes excluded damage from the waters that came with the hurricane.

So, it should come as no surprise to find an old insurance coverage case, Heron v. Phoenix Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 180 Pa. 257 (Pa. 1897) where a fire insurance policy sold to Fred Heron in the late 19th Century had the following exclusionary language:

"This entire policy…shall be void. . . if the hazard be increased by any means within the control or knowledge of the insured, . . . or if (any usage or custom of trade or manufacture to the contrary notwithstanding) there be kept, used or allowed on the above described premises, benzine, benzole, dynamite, ether, fireworks, gasoline, greek fire, gunpowder exceeding twenty-five pounds in quantity, naphtha, nitroglycerine, or other explosives, phosphorus, or petroleum or any of its products of greater inflammability than kerosene oil of the United States standard (which last may be used for lights and kept for sale according to law, but in quantities not exceeding five barrels, provided it be drawn and lamps filled by daylight or at a distance not less than ten feet from artificial light)."

I would wager that poor old Fred was just like the rest of us today. My bet would be he never read that insurance policy or thought about how those rascally insurance scriveners would find ways not to pay for a fire loss if one occurred. I suspect Fred Heron was more concerned about his Fourth of July celebration. The devastating facts were recited by the Court:

"For the purpose of celebrating the 4th of July of that year, plaintiff bought a lot of assorted fireworks which were delivered at his residence on the morning of the 3d, and were shortly afterwards, with his knowledge and approbation, placed in the parlor for use on the following evening. In some unexplained way they took fire on the afternoon of the same day, and caused the damages for which this suit was brought."

It is clear that over a hundred years ago the judges would consider not enforcing unfair language in insurance contracts if they could find a logical way to do so. Avoiding forfeiture of a valid contract after purchase has been a major theme of our jurisprudence. Insurers have every incentive to sell insurance with agents promising security and then write fine print substantially reducing the benefits the consumer thought he or she purchased.

I strongly suggest reading Barry Zalma’s "Fraud By Insurers" published on the Lexis Insurance Law Center. Zalma, an insurance defense lawyer, apparently agrees with me on this point when he wrote:

"Ostensibly legitimate insurers are attempting to limit their exposure by giving a policy a common name like “homeowners” that leads the insured to believe that liability coverage is provided for defense and indemnity of an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions that occur within the policy period, as provided by the standard ISO homeowners policy. Then, with an endorsement hidden in the back of the policy in small print without any warning, the endorsement changes the definition of “occurrence” to words that eliminate most coverage unless it happens within and is reported to the insurer during policy period. It is, in effect, selling the insured a bowl of sweet and healthy blueberries and delivering, in a sealed package, toxic mushrooms.

In an editorial in the June 15, 2009, issue of Zalma’s Insurance Fraud Letter…Barry Zalma writes: “insurance sellers, buyers, counsel, and claims staff must refuse to attempt to enforce such policy provisions unless the following questions are answered in the affirmative:

  • Is the new wording conspicuous and clear?

  • Was it called to the attention of the prospective insured?

  • Was the insured asked to acknowledge in writing that the coverage provided is less than that provided by the standard ISO CGL form?

  • Was the insurance agent or broker warned, in writing, of the modification of the form and the fact that it provides less coverage than an ISO CGL?

  • Was the insured and the agent or broker asked to acknowledge and have the insured acknowledge in writing that they understand and accept the modification?

  • Was the premium significantly reduced in light of the reduction in coverage?"

Mr. Zalma warns that “The insurer that acts to deceive, unlike the insured who acts to deceive, can be held to pay extracontractual damages for the tort of bad faith while the insurer can only collect contract damages from a deceptive insured.” Sandy Burnette and members of the Defense Research Institute must be upset that an insurance colleague recognizes that insurers commit fraud everyday when denying claims based on devious small print exclusions and that they should be held accountable for extracontractual damages when doing so.

Turning back to the legal discussion in the old insurance case, we find that the concerns of judges long ago are not that different than of today:

"We have never gone to the length that other courts have in construing away express provisions or stipulations as to forfeiture. While some hold that it is permissible to use the articles prohibited by the general printed clause, provided they are such as naturally pertain to the stock of goods or property described in the written part of the policy, this court has refused to go so far. In Birmingham Fire Ins. Co. v. Kroegher, 83 Pa. 66, where petroleum was kept for sale in a country store in violation of a printed clause very similar to that above quoted, this court said: "If the question were whether this kind of oil was an article of merchandise ordinarily included in the stock of a country store, or if it were only an inquiry as to the increase of risk, it might well be referred to the jury. But it is nothing of the kind: it is an express stipulation that petroleum or its products shall not be kept on the premises, and if it be so kept the policy is void. It matters not that it was part of a customary stock of goods, for by express contract it was excluded." …In Birmingham Fire Ins. Co. v. Kroegher…a qualification was suggested …which the learned trial judge in this case sought to carry to a length not warranted by any of our cases. It was there said by Mr. Justice GORDON: "It is probable that this provision would not apply to the oil used in lighting the premises, for such a use has, in these days, become a necessity for all buildings in the country in which light is required during the night." …our Brother DEAN, speaking for the court, said: "If the fact were that the use were a necessary one in conducting the business, then it must be presumed the intent of the parties was to insure the subject of the contract as it then was, and as it would continue to be during the life of the policy, notwithstanding the printed condition."

Unfortunately for the Fourth of July reveler, Fred Heron, this court was not sympathetically inclined:

"…These cases rest on the necessary and contemplated use of the property, and cannot be supported on any other ground. They furnish no warrant for the advanced position taken by the plaintiff in this case. There is no ground for a presumption that the parties here contemplated even the temporary presence of fireworks in the insured building in the face of an express contract to the contrary."

So, how many of you waiting to celebrate tonight with fireworks know for certain whether there is an "increase of hazard" provision in your insurance policy that may exclude a fire loss?