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Decided: February 20, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that the term “direct,” as used in the two commercial liability insurance policies at issue, was not ambiguous and, therefore, reversed and remanded the case to the district court for entry of summary judgment in favor of National Union Fire Insurance (“National Union”) and ACE American Insurance Company (“ACE”) (collectively, the “Insurers”).

Millennium Inorganic Chemicals Ltd. (“Millennium”) purchased a commercial liability insurance policy including contingent business interruption (“CBI”) insurance coverage from National Union and ACE. Pursuant to the purchase agreement, the Insurers respectively agreed to bear responsibility for 50% of Millennium’s covered losses, up to the specified limits. As pertinent to the CBI coverage, both Insurers issued a Binder of Insurance, stating that the liability coverage only applied to losses attributed to direct suppliers. Neither Binder provided any coverage for indirect suppliers. Shortly after issuing the Binders, both Insurers issued policies to Millennium with essentially identical terms. Specifically, each policy included an Endorsement titled “Contingent Business Interruption Contributing Properties Endorsement” (the “Endorsement”). The Endorsements insured Millennium against certain losses resulting from the disruption of Millennium’s material supply caused by damage to certain “contributing properties.”

Millennium was in the business of processing titanium dioxide at its processing plant in Western Australia. Natural gas received through the Dampier-to-Bunbury National Gas Pipeline (the “DB Pipeline”) was the energy source for Millennium’s operation. Millennium purchased the gas under a contract with Alinta Sales Pty Ltd. (“Alinta”), a retail gas supplier. Alinta, however, purchased the gas it offered for sale from a number of natural gas producers, one of which was Apache Corporation (“Apache”). Once Apache processed the natural gas, it injected the gas into the DB Pipeline, at which point custody, title, and risk passed from Apache to Alinta. Under Alinta’s contract with Millennium, title to the gas passed to Millennium only at the time of delivery, i.e., when the gas left the DB Pipeline and was delivered to Millennium’s facility by way of a separate delivery line. Millennium’s contract for the purchase of natural gas was solely with Alinta, and Millennium had no business relationship with Apache.

An explosion occurred at an Apache facility causing its natural gas production to cease on June 3, 2008. Apache notified Alinta, and Alinta, in turn, sent a notice of force majeure to Millennium and other customers. As a result, Millennium’s gas supply was curtailed, and it was forced to shut down its titanium dioxide manufacturing operations for several months. Consequently, Millennium sent notice of claim letters to the Insurers, seeking coverage for its losses. The Insurers, however, denied coverage because they concluded that Apache was not a direct supplier to Millennium.

Invoking diversity jurisdiction, Millennium filed a declaratory judgment action in the District Court for the District of Maryland. Millennium, further, asserted claims of breach of contract and failure to act in good faith. The district court denied the Insurers’ motion for summary judgment with respect to the declaratory judgment claim and granted the Insurers’ motion with respect to the bad faith claim. In an accompanying opinion, the court concluded that coverage under the policies extended only to “direct contributing properties.” The court then reviewed the meaning of that term and held that, because the term “direct” was ambiguous under the policies, the doctrine of contra proferentem applied in favor of Millennium. Accordingly, the district court held that Apache qualified as a “direct” supplier to Millennium, and that Apache’s facility was a “direct contributing property” within the meaning of the policies. In so holding, the district court observed that, despite not having a direct contractual relationship with Apache, Apache’s facility provided a direct supply of natural gas to Millennium’s premises.

As an alternative holding, the district court opined that the Endorsements also provided coverage for damage to contributing properties “which wholly or partially prevents delivery of material to Millennium or to others for the account of Millennium.” The court then concluded that this provision was also ambiguous because if failed to explain who must hold the account of the insured—the one who delivers, or the other to whom delivery is made. Based upon this ambiguity, it again applied the doctrine of contra proferentem, construing the phrase “for the account of” in favor of coverage for Millennium. After the district court granted Millennium’s motion for partial summary judgment, the parties stipulated and agreed to entry of judgment in favor of Millennium in the amount of $10,850,000, with the Insurers expressly preserving their right to appeal the judgment. Final judgment was then entered against the Insurers in the stipulated amount, and this appeal followed.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit examined the plain language of the policies and held that the term “direct” was clear and without ambiguity. In so holding, the Court defined the term “direct,” according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, as “proceeding from one point to another in time or space without deviation or interruption,” or “transmitted back and forth without an intermediary.” The Court, therefore, reasoned that for Apache to be considered a direct contributing property to Millennium, it must have supplied Millennium with materials necessary to the operation of its business “without deviation or interruption” from “an intermediary.” Based on the undisputed facts of the case, however, the Court found that neither Apache nor Apache’s facilities could be considered a “direct contributing property” of Millennium. Specifically, Millennium did not dispute that it received its gas from Alinta, and that Alinta—not Apache—had the sole ability to control the amount of gas directed to Millennium. The court, therefore, found the relationship between Apache and Millennium was clearly interrupted by “an intermediary,” Alinta.

Next, the Court addressed Millennium’s alternative argument that it could also receive coverage under the “for the account of” clause of the Endorsements, and found that this contention failed for the same reason as Millennium’s primary argument. Because coverage under the policies was only triggered by damage to direct contributing properties, there could be no coverage under any reading of the “for the account of” clause because apache was not a direct supplier. Thus, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court for entry of summary judgment in favor of the Insurers.

Full Opinion

– W. Ryan Nichols