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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Declines Jurisdiction over COVID-19 Coverage Claim – Tacitly Acknowledges Not All Claims / Policies Are the Same

May 18, 2020

Author: Brian F. Breen

Insurers faced with pending and likely COVID-19 lawsuits in Pennsylvania recently received a favorable ruling from the Commonwealth’s highest court. An emergency application for extraordinary relief filed by Joseph Tambellini, Inc., d/b/a Joseph Tambellini Restaurant (Tambellini) was denied by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on May 14, 2020. The Court rejected Tambellini’s request for it to (1) exercise plenary jurisdiction over its pending coverage action against Erie Insurance Exchange (Erie) and (2) assume authority over all COVID-19 litigation to immediately resolve insurance coverage issues. 

Background
Tambellini, the owner of a restaurant in Pittsburgh, filed a complaint against Erie in the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County on April 17, 2020, seeking declaratory, compensatory and injunctive relief with respect to insurance coverage losses purportedly caused by the COVID-19 virus and governmental orders entered in connection therewith. Specifically, Tambellini asserts he suffered business income, civil authority and other related losses that were wrongfully denied by Erie. However, instead of allowing that litigation to proceed in the normal manner in the trial court, Tambellini sought the intervention of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. 

On April 29, 2020, Tambellini petitioned the Supreme Court for extraordinary relief requesting that the Court exercise jurisdiction with regard to his Common Pleas action. Under 42 Pa.C.S.A. §726, the Supreme Court may assume plenary jurisdiction in any matter pending before any court involving an issue of immediate public importance. Tambellini asserted the needs of all Pennsylvania citizens who are seeking recompense from their insurers for the losses, damage and expenses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the related governmental orders – and who need resolution of the insurance coverage issues facing them in attempting to restart their businesses and lives – warrant the Supreme Court’s involvement. Tambellini also asked the Court to “assume authority over all COVID-19 litigation in order to immediately resolve all legal insurance coverage issues and to ensure the prompt and fair resolution of all pending and anticipated claims and actions.” 

Analysis
Erie opposed the application and argued Tambellini’s case involves a private coverage dispute that will turn on the specific language, coverages and exclusions set out in its policy as well as the case-specific facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged closure of his business. Erie argued the coverage dispute between the parties does not implicate an issue of immediate public importance and pointed out the Supreme Court has never exercised plenary jurisdiction of a private contract dispute. 

Further, Erie asserted the Court should not accept control over all other insurance coverage cases that have been or may be filed in Pennsylvania state courts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and should not establish a system for the resolution of any other coverage issues that may arise in those cases regardless of whether the involved insurance policies bear any resemblance to the one purchased by Tambellini. 

The Supreme Court, without issuing an opinion, denied Tambellini’s application. As such, Tambellini’s coverage claim will proceed in the trial court and any other litigation commenced or to be filed in connection with the pandemic will proceed separately. The Court’s decision will permit each claim to be decided following a review of the specific facts surrounding the alleged loss and the language in the applicable policy and appears to acknowledge not all claims or policies are the same.

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