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Yountville's Thomas Keller sues insurer over refusal to cover pandemic losses

Yountville's Thomas Keller sues insurer over refusal to cover pandemic losses

Thomas Keller

Celebrated chef Thomas Keller in the kitchen of his French Laundry restaurant in Yountville.

Three-star Michelin Chef Thomas Keller announced Thursday that he will go to court to challenge his insurer, Hartford Fire Insurance Company, over its assertion that losses incurred in the wake of COVID-19 are not covered by the chef’s business interruption insurance policy, according to a press release.

Keller’s attorney on Wednesday evening filed for a Declaratory Judgement in the Superior Court of Napa County, the press release said. The lawsuit comes as Keller expects his insurer to deny a claim for closure directed or mandated by government officials, the press release says.

Business interruption often falls under property insurance, according to Heffernan Insurance Brokers Senior Vice President Debra Costa, and often requires physical damage to have been done to the insured property to trigger coverage.

“The insurance industry is pushing out deceptive propaganda that the virus does not cause a dangerous condition to property,” Keller’s attorney John Houghtaling said in the press release. Houghtaling, whose previous legal work around insurance after New York’s Hurricane Sandy made national headlines, described the claim as deceptive to policy holders. Houghtaling last week filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of a restaurant in New Orleans, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Business interruption insurance policies often include exclusions for virus-related damages, an industry standard adopted in the years after an outbreak of SARS ravaged the economies of China and Hong Kong in 2002 and 2003. Scores of business nationwide are discovering that the losses they’ve sustained while their communities are under lockdown will not be covered.

The restaurant industry, along with other sectors in the tourism and hospitality industries, has been hit especially hard as states nationwide declare lockdowns in the wake of the pandemic.

Some are operating at a limited capacity, serving take-out and delivery; others have closed entirely. Industry trade groups, including the National Restaurant Association, have written to the federal government urging them to take immediate action to preserve restaurants and other businesses. In the interim, courts nationwide could see additional litigation filed against insurers refusing to cover losses.

“The restaurant industry is the largest private sector employer in America,” Keller, who owns Yountville’s The French Laundry and a score of other critically acclaimed restaurants, said in the press release.

The industry employs more than 15.6 million Americans and contributes $1 trillion to the economy annually, he added. “We need insurance companies to do the right thing and save millions of jobs.”

Editor’s note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/.

You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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