How One Squirrel Taught us a Surprising Amount about Insurance Investigation Lessons Learned from the Iowa Supreme Court

Two stick figures teaching one holding apple

The facts of City of West Liberty are a little unusual, but its lesson is not limited to Iowa insurance law.

April 3, 2019
Graham C. Mills - Newmeyer & Dillion

A recent decision issued by the Iowa Supreme Court, City of West Liberty, Iowa v. Employers Mutual Casualty Company, highlights the importance for a policyholder to investigate a loss fully so that a wide range of evidence can be gathered and presented to show why there is coverage. The facts of City of West Liberty are a little unusual, but its lesson is not limited to Iowa insurance law; the issues litigated in this case show the value of investigating what caused a loss regardless of whether the loss occurred in California, Iowa, or elsewhere.

Background on the Case
City of West Liberty involved an insurance coverage dispute between a municipality owned electrical power plant and its insurance company. The dispute arose from a single adventurous squirrel who climbed onto an outdoor electrical transformer, touching two different parts of the power plant: a portion of the steel frame and a bare cable clamp. In doing so, the squirrel created a “conductive path,” in the words of the Iowa Supreme Court, between the high voltage clamp and the grounded frame. The path, once created, caused significant damage to the transformer and other electrical equipment at the city’s power plant.

The city submitted a claim for the resulting damage, but the insurance company denied it. The insurer denied based on an exclusion in the insurance policy for property damage “caused by arcing or by electrical currents other than lightning.” According to the insurance company, the squirrel had no role in causing the damage; all of the damage resulted from arcing, which was excluded from coverage. The ensuing lawsuit focused upon whether the squirrel had a role in causing the damage. If yes, then there would be coverage according to Iowa insurance law; when a loss results from two causes, one of which is covered and the other is not, then there is coverage if the loss occurs from the covered cause. Due to this legal standard, the city contended that, apart from the arcing causing any damage, the squirrel caused the damage too. Because the insurance policy provided protection against mischievous actions performed by squirrels, the city contended that it was entitled to coverage, even if the excluded arcing contributed to the same damage too. Unfortunately, for the city, the Iowa Supreme Court rejected that argument, finding instead that the property damage resulted only from the arcing, which was excluded from coverage. In reaching its conclusion, the court absolved the squirrel of any wrongdoing, finding that it did not cause any of the property damage.

Mr. Mills may be contacted at graham.mills@ndlf.com



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