Those of us who suffered through law school are familiar with the argument that there are fundamental rules applicable to contract interpretation and that a certain contract language interpretation would “swallow the rule.” However, insurance companies have long advocated for an interpretation of the CGL policy’s pollution exclusion that would “swallow the coverage” that the insureds thought they were purchasing. Insurers have successfully argued in several states that the pollution exclusion’s definition of “pollutant” should be read literally, and be applied to any “solid, liquid, gaseous, or thermal irritant or contaminant including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals, and waste.” As anyone with children can attest to, the range of items and substances that can be considered an “irritant” is limitless. The logical extent of the insurer’s interpretation brings to mind the high school student who, for his science fair project, convinced his fellow students to ban “dihydrogen monoxide.”1 Citing evidence such as the fact that everyone who has ever died was found to have consumed “dihydrogen monoxide,” he convinced them of the dangers of . . . water. Similarly, an overly expansive reading of the definition of “pollutant” could lead to the absurd result of even applying it to ubiquitous harmless substances such as water. The pollution exclusion, therefore, has run amok in many states and has allowed insurers to avoid liability for otherwise covered claims.
Fortunately, insureds in many states have successfully argued that the pollution exclusion is subject to a more limited interpretation based on several different theories. For example, some courts have agreed that the pollution exclusion, as initially introduced by the insurance industry, should be limited to instances of traditional environmental pollution. Others have held that the exclusion is ambiguous as to its interpretation. The reasonable expectations of the insureds do not support a broad reading of the defined term “pollutant.” Below, this article addresses a number of recent decisions that have adopted a pro policyholder interpretation of the pollution exclusion. As with most insurance coverage issues, choice of law clearly matters.