Sunday, June 26th, 2022

a ‘physical loss’ to covered property needed to trigge

Ruling Against Evanston Restaurant Upheld By Appeals Court
Evanston Grill’s owners had argued State Farm’s virus exclusion clause was inapplicable to losses from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 orders.

After its insurance company denied Evanston Grill’s claim for lost income, its owner filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of it and of a proposed class consisting of other people insured by State Farm.
After its insurance company denied Evanston Grill’s claim for lost income, its owner filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of it and of a proposed class consisting of other people insured by State Farm. (Google Maps)
EVANSTON, IL — A state appeals court affirmed a Cook County judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit against State Farm filed by the owner of an Evanston restaurant over the insurance company’s refusal to cover losses following Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s coronavirus-related closure orders.

Evanston Grill, at 1047 Chicago Ave., is owned and operated by Jaewook Lee and his son. They had signed up for an “all risk” commercial property policy with the Bloomington-based insurer. That policy includes a clause that excludes claims for losses caused by viruses.

The month after governor’s March 2020 executive orders restricting non-essential businesses the restaurant lost more than $100,000 compared to the same month a year earlier “—a decrease attributable to the Closure Orders,” according to the complaint.

Attorneys for State Farm argued that the business’ losses would not have occurred in the absence of the COVID-19 virus, and therefore not covered by the policy.

In January 2021, Cook County Associate Judge Allen Walker granted the insurance company’s motion to dismiss the complaint, which was filed on behalf of the Lees and a proposed class of similarly situated State Farm customers.

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“While [Evanston Grill’s owners] argue that their losses were a result of the Closure Orders, and not a virus, the Court finds this argument unpersuasive. As [State Farm] argues,” Walker said in a January 2021 order, “each of the Closure Orders were entered in response to the COVID-19 virus. If not for COVID-19, the Governor would not have issued the Closure Orders, and [Evanston Grill’s owners] would not have incurred the claimed losses. As such, the Court finds that [State Farm] has met its burden of establishing an exclusion applies under the Policy.”

Walker also found that “loss of use” is not the same as direct physical loss of property, which was covered by the policy.

Evanston Grill appealed that order the next month.

“Illinois Governor Pritzker issued Executive Orders that required the closure of properties, including Evanston Grill,” Evanston-based attorney Alexander Loftus argued on behalf of Lee, the restaurant owner.

In a July 2021 appeals brief, Loftus said the governor’s orders caused Lee to lose use of the business, that it counts as a “physical loss” and that the losses were continuing.

“The Executive Orders were a blanket knee jerk reaction to a pandemic enforced regardless of the presence of a virus in any particular establishment or even community,” Loftus said. “This is exactly what Evanston Grill purchased insurance for”

Prior to the state appeals court issuing a ruling on the Evanston Grill case, the federal judges on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued several rulings siding with insurance companies in cases where businesses had filed claims for losses attributed to COVID-19 closure orders.

One of those causes, Mashallah Inc. and Ranalli’s Park Ridge LLC v. West Bend Mutual Insurance Co., specifically addressed the issue of how to interpret virus coverage exclusion clauses in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“[T]he virus set in motion an unbroken causal chain via the government orders to the purported losses and expenses. The complaint’s attempt to decouple the government COVID-19 orders from the COVID-19 virus itself are untenable. It’s likely true, as the businesses assert, that the orders were ‘predicated on a myriad of considerations, not just the existence of the virus.'” U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Manion said in the December 2021 ruling.

“Public officials must weigh many factors in formulating the scope and specifics of orders that dramatically curtail society’s social and commercial activities. But there can be no honest dispute that the coronavirus was the reason these orders were promulgated. It was, so to speak, the prime mover. The causal relationship between the novel coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic, the government orders, and the alleged losses and expenses ‘is not debatable,'” he said, quoting from another federal court ruling in favor of an insurer.

On Tuesday, a three-judge state appellate panel in Illinois’ 1st District unanimously found in State Farm’s favor and upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the case.

“The writing was on the wall for this months ago when the 7th Circuit issued its trifecta of rulings,” Loftus told Patch. “The First District followed the trend on these issues and didn’t make any waves with this ruling.”

The appeals court found that Evanston Grill’s claim was excluded under the virus clause of its insurance policy, and that the restaurant’s business interruption claim “constituted an economic loss and not a ‘physical loss’ to covered property needed to trigger coverage under the policy.”

The Illinois Restaurant Association and the Restaurant Law Center filed briefs supporting the reversal of the dismissal of Evanston Grill’s complaint, while the American Property Casualty Insurance Association and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies filed briefs called for the dismissal to be affirmed.

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