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Suit: Pennsylvania School District Knew About Lead, Asbestos Contamination

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Current and former employees of a Pennsylvania school district have claimed in a lawsuit that officials knew for years that unsafe levels of lead and asbestos posed potential health risks for students and staff but never disclosed the information to them or the public.

The plaintiffs are asking for a medical monitoring program for current and former Scranton school district students and staffers, as well as undisclosed damages. They are also seeking class-action status.

The lead plaintiffs are an elementary school principal, a reading specialist and a retired maintenance worker. In the suit, they allege the district received test results from environmental studies, starting in at least 2016, that made officials aware of the issues, but they never informed students, parents, and staffers until last month.

District officials have announced high lead levels at 38 sinks and water fountains in several schools.

The district, two current school board members and 13 former board members are named in the suit as defendants. All the board members named served between 2016-2019.

A message seeking comment was left with the superintendent’s office.

The plaintiffs claim the defendants knew or should have known that all but four of the district’s 18 school buildings posed serious health dangers, and yet failed to take protective measures for reasons known only to them.

Patrick Howard, an attorney with Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky law firm, which filed the suit, noted that health problems related to lead and asbestos exposure can take years, if not decades, to develop and become apparent.

“I’ve advised my clients to get chest x-rays, CTC scans if they’re concerned,” Howard said. “This could be something they want to do for years to come. They shouldn’t have to reach into their pocket for dollar one to pay for health care costs related to this. Some students may not have insurance, and through no fault of their own they may need to have medical oversight and treatment.”

School districts statewide have been grappling with how to address environmental hazards in aging school buildings. Asbestos is a known carcinogen, while lead can cause lifelong brain damage and other injuries, especially in children.

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Rumbull Named Head of Willis Re Speciality in North America

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Charles Rumball, currently executive vice president of Willis Re’s Specialty Reinsurance Division in Bermuda, is relocating to New York to assume the new role of head of Speciality for North America for Willis Re.

Rumball brings considerable experience to his new position. He has worked as a lead underwriter across the specialty classes, and is experienced in portfolio management and structuring and negotiating group hedging strategies.

He was previously head of specialty reinsurance at Ariel Re, which he joined in 2006 from Guy Carpenter, where he was a reinsurance broker based in London and New York, after beginning his career in 2002.

Rumball will report in tandem to Donald Harrell, chief operating officer of Willis Re Specialty and Jeffrey Livingston, executive vice chairman, CEO, Willis Re North America.

“Clients increasingly make decisions on a local basis, so it is important to have an integrated speciality business within their own region,” Harrell said. “Because of that, Willis Re is investing to build out our North American speciality business structure with a broad focus, covering Inland Marine, Ocean Marine, Aviation, Energy and Retro.”

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Massachusetts Joins Ohio, N.J. in Proposing COVID-19 Business Interruption Bill

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Massachusetts is one of the latest states to propose legislation that would mandate insurers to cover COVID-19 related business interruption claims despite virus exclusions in many policies.

This comes as Insurance Journal reported legislators in New Jersey and Ohio have floated similar legislation, though none of the bills have yet passed.

The Massachusetts bill – SD.2888 – is being sponsored by Senator James Eldridge, who told Insurance Journal that he consulted with restaurant and small business owners in the state in drafting the proposed legislation.

Massachusetts State Senator James Eldridge

“If we don’t find a way to provide financial support for these restaurants and businesses, whether it’s the insurance industry or government, many of them will never reopen,” he said. “And that won’t be good for anyone, including the insurance industry.”

The proposed bill states insurers in Massachusetts may not deny a claim for business interruption because COVID-19 is a virus, even if the relevant insurance policy excludes losses resulting from viruses. Under the proposed bill, insurers also may not deny COVID-19 related business interruption claims if there is a lack of physical damage to the insured’s property or to any other relevant property.

“Restaurant owners and other business owners are closing and have closed, and they still have bills to pay,” Eldridge said. “They need to pay rent, they’re hoping to pay their employees and yet, in some cases, insurance companies are denying those claims because of the virus exclusion.”

Massachusetts Bill SD.2888 has been proposed as an emergency law, meaning the process of moving it through the Legislature would be expedited.

“There is a big push about relief for small businesses, including restaurants and restaurant workers, so I don’t know the exact timetable but I would like to see the Legislature act on this very quickly,” Eldridge said.

According to the bill, insurer payouts for COVID-19 claims will be subject to any monetary limits of the policy and any maximum length of time set forth in the policy for business interruption coverage. It applies only to policies issued to insureds with 150 or fewer full-time-equivalent employees in Massachusetts. If passed, the bill would be retroactive to March 10, 2020, when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency declaration.

Eldridge said that although similar bills have been filed in other states, the Massachusetts legislation was filed independently after consulting with restaurants and businesses throughout the Commonwealth.

“I personally think this kind of pandemic should be covered by insurance companies,” he said.

The insurance industry, however, has a different take. It has pushed back against legislation like this, expressing concerns that it could place too much financial strain on insurers that didn’t price for virus related losses. This is because the insurance industry initially took action nearly 15 years ago to limit insurance coverage for the next pandemic, according to a report by Philadelphia-based law firm White and Williams.

In July 2006, The Insurance Services Office (ISO) submitted an exclusion for loss due to virus or bacteria that was later approved by regulators. The exclusion states that it applies to business income, or business interruption, and makes explicit reference to SARS – another type of coronavirus, the White and Williams report explained. Similar exclusions exist in forms issued by other insurance organizations or in insurer-drafted forms, according to Paul White, attorney at Wilson Elser.

White warned earlier this month in an audio interview that if other states follow in New Jersey’s footsteps after its initial proposal of N.J. Bill A-3844 regarding business interruption insurance and the coronavirus, it could set a dangerous precedent for the insurance industry.

Paul White

“If the legislation proposed in New Jersey were to become an accepted template that in essence required insurers to provide coverage for losses arising from COVID-19, irrespective of the terms of the insurance contract, I believe the consequences could be devastating for the insurance industry,” White said. “Draconian measures that preclude an insurer from being able to rely on policy exclusions and force the industry to cover losses that were not contracted for would set a horrible precedent.”

Additional concerns have been raised by the industry that legislation like this could conflict with The Contracts Clause found in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which places limitations on states’ ability to interfere with private contracts.

“This isn’t a situation where insurance companies are asking for a bail out or otherwise trying to shift their financial problems to the public sector,” Kristin Cummings, attorney-at-law at Dallas, Texas-based law firm Zelle LLP, previously told Insurance Journal. “Insurance companies are simply attempting to apply the terms of the policies that were negotiated with their insureds to provide coverage for the losses they agreed to cover. Suggesting that insurance companies, along with state and federal governments, should bear the financial burden of COVID-19 losses by rewriting the terms of agreed upon contracts is effectively an impermissible governmental taking and unconstitutional.”

In a statement released by the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC), President and CEO Charles M. Chamness said calls for the insurance industry to provide coverage for perils that are excluded in a business interruption policy are misguided, Insurance Journal previously reported.

“If elected officials require payment for perils that were excluded, never underwritten for, and for which no premium was ever collected, catastrophic results will occur and we may deal with a second crisis: insurance insolvencies and impairments. There will also be irreparable harm done to contract law, and the impact of this will be felt by every business in America,” Chamness said.

In light of some of these concerns, Eldridge emphasized that the proposed legislation in Massachusetts offers a mechanism that allows an insurance company to be reimbursed by the state government for any COVID-19 related payouts to business or restaurant owners, with an assessment conducted at a later time in order to spread the risk.

“I think what I really want to stress is we all need to be in this together,” he said. “I want to support restaurant and business owners and their employees and also recognize that it’s a financial burden for insurance companies. But right now is really when many of these businesses need the full support of their insurance companies.”

Indeed, the Massachusetts bill states that insurers required to provide coverage to insureds that file claims may apply to the commissioner of insurance for relief and reimbursement. The commissioner of insurance would then establish procedures for insurers’ submission and qualification of eligible claims. A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Division of Insurance said the Division doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

White said he doesn’t see the insurance industry’s role needing to change amidst the coronavirus pandemic, however, as he believes the industry is already well equipped to handle the surge of claims that are coming its way.

“I believe the insurance industry’s role will be what it has always been,” he said. “While COVID-19 is new and promises to bring with it an avalanche of claims to the insurance industry, many of the legal issues presented are not new, and insurers are equipped to address the issues. They are using their already existing knowledge and skill sets to take on a new and different problem, but one that they are very able to take on.”

About Elizabeth Blosfield

Elizabeth Blosfield is the East region editor for Insurance Journal. She can be reached at eblosfield@wellsmedia.com. More from Elizabeth Blosfield

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Coronavirus Infections on Rise in Already-Strained Urban Police Departments

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When nine police officers showed up to make an arrest near Melrose Avenue in the Bronx last Wednesday, none wore a mask or gloves to protect them from coronavirus.

Similar scenes play out all over the city daily: officers making arrests, walking their beats and responding to 911 calls without protective gear, according to interviews with nearly two dozen New York City officers and scenes witnessed by Reuters.

As of Monday, 930 members of the nation’s biggest police force had tested positive for the coronavirus, including 824 uniformed officers and 106 civilian staffers, according to NYPD. The department said 5,199 of its about 55,000 total employees are on sick leave.

Major city departments nationwide, such as Houston and Detroit, are being forced to sideline officers as infections rise in the ranks, according to a Reuters survey of the nation’s 20 largest U.S. police agencies conducted between March 25 and March 30. The police agencies have confirmed 1,169 cases of COVID-19 among officers or civilian staff, according to the survey and a Reuters review of the departments’ public statements.

The pandemic has depleted police forces already strained by staffing shortages. Many departments have told officers to limit their interactions with the public and maintain social distancing. Some agencies are re-assigning detectives and administrative staff to help respond to emergencies as more patrol officers get sick, which requires pulling the investigators away from major cases.

“There’s a lot of triaging going on,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that advises police on policy issues. “Many departments are having to re-order priorities and the calls they respond to. Police are having to reshuffle how they use their resources.”

NYPD may face the biggest challenge because of the severity of the city’s outbreak: Of the 3,017 deaths reported nationwide as of Monday, 914 came in New York City.

The officers interviewed by Reuters said shortages of gear leave them vulnerable and that they fear spreading the virus to their families and the public.

“We show up first, to everything, and we are completely unprotected,” said one officer in the 33rd precinct.

All of the New York officers interviewed by Reuters spoke on condition of anonymity. They say the department forbids them from speaking to reporters.

Disposable Gear

Sergeant Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, said that the department was responding to an “unprecedented” crisis and has issued detailed guidance to officers on how to protect themselves. Since the outbreak began, she said, the NYPD has distributed 204,000 pairs of gloves, 75,000 N-95 masks, 340,000 surgical masks and distributed 125,000 alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer to employees.

NYPD did not answer questions from Reuters about whether that amount of gear – much of it disposable – was sufficient to protect its 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees. The department also did not comment on the accounts of officers who said they had little or no protective gear, or whether it had experienced difficulty in purchasing enough supplies.

Masks and other protective or sanitary supplies have often been scarce since the pandemic sent worldwide demand surging, prompting safety concerns from a wide range of workers who interact daily with the public, from first responders to doctors to delivery drivers.

One uniformed NYPD officer, a school safety agent and two civilian employees have died after contracting COVID-19. The officer – 23-year veteran detective Cedric Dixon from the 32nd precinct in Harlem – died on Saturday. School safety agent Sabrina Jefferson, a 26-year-veteran who was assigned to Patrol Borough Queens South School Safety, died on Sunday. Test results are pending for senior police administrative aide Gwendolyn King, who died on Monday.

On March 13, the New York City police union filed a complaint with state health and safety regulators over the department’s failure to provide protective equipment and adequate cleaning and sanitizing supplies. The union emphasized the threat to officers’ families.

“It’s important for our leaders to remember that we aren’t the only ones at risk,” said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the city’s police union, in a statement. “Our husbands and wives and daughters and sons didn’t pick this job, but they share our sacrifice.”

Reuters was not able to determine whether any family members of NYPD officers had been infected.

Delayed Arrests

Departments nationwide are struggling to protect their officers – and to operate without those who are getting sick. The Reuters survey asked police agencies how many of their employees tested positive for coronavirus, how many were quarantined, and how the outbreak has impacted their operations.

The Nassau County Police Department – just outside New York City on Long Island – reported the second highest number of cases with 68 employees testing positive. In Detroit, 598 employees of the city’s 2,200-member force have been quarantined after at least 69 officers tested positive – including the police chief. Two department staffers, a commanding officer and a 911 dispatcher, have died after contracting the virus.

The San Antonio Police Department was the only one that reported no confirmed infections on its force.

In New Orleans and Seattle – which are not among the top 20 departments but are hotspots of infection – another seven police employees tested positive, the departments told Reuters.

The outbreak is forcing law enforcement agencies nationwide to implement sweeping changes to their policing strategies.

The Philadelphia Police Department, the nation’s fourth-largest law enforcement agency with 6,540 officers, has begun delaying arrests for certain non-violent offenders. The change means individuals will be temporarily detained only to confirm identity and complete required paperwork instead of being processed at a detective division. The person will then be arrested at a later date.

The 2,440-officer Nassau County department had quarantined 163 officers as of Saturday. Its dispatchers are screening all 911 calls to check if anyone needing help is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Responding officers and medics are ordered to wear an N95 mask, gloves, eye protection and gowns, the department said.

Some departments are limiting access to their buildings. Intercoms have been installed at the entrance doors of all seven precincts of the Suffolk County police department – also in Long Island, with nearly 2,500 officers – to screen visitors for symptoms before allowing entry.

In Dallas, where 34 employees from the police department have been quarantined and two have tested positive, officers are no longer physically responding to calls for certain minor crimes. People are instead being asked to file a report online.

Complaints over shortages of protective gear are growing in major police departments. The Dallas Police Department, for instance, has issued N95 masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to its more than 3,000 officers. But the police union president says it’s not enough. Many officers, he said, are using the same mask for days even though N95 masks are not meant to be reused.

“Those masks are in such dire need,” said Michael Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association. “We’re in a very bad spot.”

Mata says he’s been told the police department has ordered more protective gear. A Dallas police spokesman said the new supplies would be handed out starting Monday and confirmed that some patrol divisions had run low on gear.

In New York City, resentment over a lack of protective gear runs deep, according to interviews with current and former officers. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, cops working on the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center were told the air was safe to breathe. Years later, many developed fatal 9/11-related cancers and illnesses.

“This is even worse than 9/11,” said one NYPD officer. “We are bringing this home to our families.”

No Crime Slowdown

While local stay-home orders and business closures have paralyzed the economy, they do not appear to have significantly slowed crime. Reuters reviewed police dispatch records in a handful of large cities, which showed far fewer traffic stops but similar rates of calls reporting more serious crimes.

In Baltimore, the Monday after Maryland’s governor issued an order shutting non-essential businesses, city police reported making just 71 traffic stops, compared to a daily average of more than 350 a day in the months before the virus hit, dispatch records showed.

But dispatches to more serious incidents were not diminished. The number of calls reporting a family disturbance, such as domestic fights, for instance, increased slightly after the governor imposed the first business restrictions on March 16. The number of dispatches involving assaults was largely unchanged.

Baltimore’s police force did not respond to requests for comment.

ShotSpotter – a company that tracks gunshots for many large police departments using networks of microphones – said there had been no perceptible slowdown in gunfire in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco or Miami.

“It’s business as usual, sadly, with respect to gun violence,” said ShotSpotter president Ralph Clark.

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin, Linda So, Brad Heath and Grant Smith Editing by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot)

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