It was the late 1980s and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“USEPA”) was conducting Potentially Responsible Party (“PRP”) Searches at landfills throughout the United States. The Superfund had been recently created and there was money to fund this investigative effort so that large corporate “polluters” could be identified and advised of their liability for the property damage their release of pollutants had caused. Springing up alongside the USEPA’s efforts were the efforts of defense attorneys to enter the administrative law arena to defend their clients against allegations that they either generated or transported pollutants that were released to a waste site or that they owned or operated a site at which pollutants had been released.
This was the age of the multi-milliion dollar environmental property damage insurance claims as well. Large corporations identified as PRPs authorized searches for historic general liability insurance policies. They hired one of two large, east coast insurance archeology firms that specialized in going to the London Market and the large New York insurance brokers. They paid large fees to get copies of their clients’ policies that these brokers had retained in their archives. They then filed property damage claims on their corporate clients’ behalf with insurers identified by these policies. This went on for a good 15 years, while the insurers and corporate defense counsel wrangled in the courts over the meaning of the language in these policies and the coverage they provided.
Just when it all looked like it all was ending, the asbestos and toxic tort cases materialized, giving the large law firms and large insurance archeology companies a new reason for being in business. For another decade and a half, mesothelioma victims brought claims against the large asbestos manufacturers and their corporate attorneys once again turned to those large insurance archeology firms “camping out” in the vestibules of the brokerages of New York and London. Silica inhalation victims followed suit and once again the large corporations and their attorneys beat a path to the doors of the large brokerage houses. The merger and acquisition craze of the 1990s made for more of the same, with survivors of corporate mergers commissioning the retrieval of the historic insurance policies of their acquisitions. Today, there has been a sea change in the business of insurance archeology. The large corporate polluters are done responding to the USEPA’s PRP notices. The asbestos manufacturers have been sued and their claims have been filed and handled. The large insurance archeology firms are becoming less conspicuous in the halls of the larger brokerage houses. This is because it is now the turn of the small to mid-size companies, who are responding to administrative actions and need to identify and retrieve their general liability policies. The asbestos suppliers, the small parts manufacturers that used asbestos in assembling their products, the mid-size chemical repackagers, the churches and schools with abuse claims: these are the insurance archeology candidates of the 2000s.
What is different is that these small to mid-size companies, churches, schools, etc. didn’t buy their insurance from the New York brokerages. Typically, they did not buy London coverage either. They went to the small to medium sized domestic insurance agencies for their insurance needs. They purchased their insurance in the city in which they were headquartered—or at least nearby.
For these insurance archeology clients, going to the larger insurance archeology firms doesn’t make sense. It is not the big insurance archeology firms’ mode of operation to dispatch an associate into the heartland to search public archives of small town Indiana or Ohio. They won’t be flying from New York or Philadelphia to Peoria, Illinois to search the garages, basements, storage sheds and public archives small town America. But that is just what is required in this new age of insurance archeology: the “grass roots” approach. If you are mid-sized and need to locate your old general liabilty insurance policies, my recommendation is to get yourself an insurance archeologist from your part of the country who knows the territory and can get things done on Main Street, U.S.A.