Few would quarrel with the COVID-19 pandemic being described as ‘a plague’ in the Biblical sense – but it is not ‘plague’ in the narrower medical sense of the word. That fine distinction proved decisive in defeating a business interruption insurance claim brought by a hotel and golf resort hit hard by lockdown.
The owner of the resort claimed £250,000 from its insurers in reliance on a clause in its policy that covered it against losses arising from business interruption caused by outbreaks of infectious disease. The insurers, however, asserted that the claim was doomed to fail in that ‘infectious disease’ was defined in the policy by reference to a list of 34 diseases in which COVID-19 did not appear.
The listed diseases ranged from exotic conditions like leprosy and anthrax to more commonplace mumps and rubella. The owner argued that the inclusion of ‘plague’ in the list would be read by an ordinary person as embracing COVID-19. It pointed to an Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of ‘plague’ as an epidemic of any infectious disease which spreads rapidly and has a high mortality rate.
Ruling on the case, the High Court noted that the word ‘plague’, as defined by the owner, did not describe a disease or even a condition of any sort. It referred to the macro effects of a number of possible diseases and essentially described ‘a plague’, rather than ‘plague’. Referring to the Book of Revelations and the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the Court observed that it might have taken a different view had ‘plague’ been accompanied in the list by ‘famine’, ‘war’ and ‘pestilence’.
The only credible definition of ‘plague’, as used in the policy wording, was that of a specific disease caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. That too was a definition that appeared in the OED. Giving that meaning to the word accorded with both common sense and the clear intention of the policy. Other arguments put forward by the owner also failed and its claim was struck out.