General Refractories v. First State Insurance — insurance — reversal — Vanaskie
If you made a list of the most fun things about being a circuit judge, I suspect that “reviewing the district court ruling of a judge who since has become your colleague on the appeals court” would be pretty far from the top. But it happens, and yesterday it resulted in a unanimous reversal in an asbestos-insurance-coverage appeal.
The dispute arose from a Pennsylvania insurance policy that excluded losses “arising out of asbestos.” The policyholder argued that this only excluded losses related to raw asbestos, not asbestos-containing products. The insurer argued it excluded both.
The district court — Judge Restrepo, before his 2016 elevation to the Third Circuit — sided with the policyholder, ruling that “asbestos” was ambiguous and that the insurer’s asserted exclusion of asbestos-product liability was unenforceable. But yesterday the Third Circuit reversed, holding that, even if “asbestos” meant only raw asbestos, under PA law the words “arising out of” unambiguously encompassed all losses that would not have occurred but for the raw asbestos, thus including asbestos-product losses.
For the second time in less than a week, the court (indeed, the exact same panel) grappled with whether to rest its holding on a position not asserted below, and again it took the more assertive route. The policyholder argued that the insurer waived its but-for causation argument by not raising it below, instead focusing on the meaning of the word asbestos. The Third Circuit ruled that the two arguments were close enough, and alternatively that, even if the causation argument were waived, this was an exceptional circumstance where the public interest would require it to be heard. “Were we to ignore the consistent and explicit meaning assigned to the phrase in Pennsylvania insurance exclusions,” it said, “we would cast doubt on a tradition of interpretation that many parties have relied upon in defining their contractual obligations.”
It’s hard to be sure from the opinion how sound its no-waiver ruling is, but I think the alternative public-interest ruling is wrong. One sentence — “The causation argument is waived so we don’t reach it and nothing in today’s opinion casts doubt on PA’s well-settled rule” — would have protected state law and the waiver rule.
I’d have predicted that the court would be especially unwilling to reverse one of its own this way, but evidently not so.