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Times Square billboards go dark to support coronavirus business interruption claims

Several states, including Louisiana, have proposed legislation to force insurance companies to pay coronavirus claims.
Credit: AP
Vehicles move through a nearly empty Times Square during the coronavirus pandemic, Saturday, May 23, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

NEW ORLEANS — A New Orleans attorney is behind 15 electronic billboards in New York’s Times Square going dark Wednesday evening.

John Houghtaling’s Business Interruption Group teamed with billboard operators and the Times Square Alliance for a momentary blackout on billboards on Broadway between 46th and 48th streets and the lights on the famed red steps in Father Duffy Square at Broadway and 47th Street. The billboard screens then showed a video calling attention to the fight to get insurance companies to cover losses suffered by businesses because of stay-at-home and social distancing orders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Back in March, WWL-TV was the first to report on Houghtaling’s efforts to get insurance companies to pay business interruption claims for the coronavirus shutdown. Houghtaling represents the French Quarter restaurant Oceana Grill in the first lawsuit filed against an insurer that won’t pay for losses caused by the pandemic.

Since then, he’s filed several lawsuits against insurance companies across the country.

Some states, including Louisiana, have proposed legislation to try to force insurance companies to pay coronavirus claims, but Houghtaling actually testified against that kind of legislation in Congress last week. Instead, he said his Business Interruption Group is backing new federal legislation called the BIG Insurance Relief Act that would ask insurers to voluntarily pay policies with exclusions and get reimbursement from the federal government.

Houghtaling said he's suing some insurers and asking them to "do the right thing" and pay on policies that don't have exclusions for pandemics or viruses.

Insurance groups say most business interruption insurance policies have those exclusions. Steve Badger, a leading insurance company attorney in Dallas, said legislative efforts to force the claims to be paid are unconstitutional. What’s more, Badger said forcing insurers to pay millions of uncovered claims at once could bankrupt the industry.

The Insurance Information Institute says most standard business interruption policies have specific exclusions for "virus or bacteria." If insurers are forced to pay those claims retroactively, it would cost at least $250 billion a month.

That cost would dwarf the $404.6 billion insurers paid for all of 2019 for business losses caused by covered perils like hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. Loretta Worters, vice president for media relations at Triple-I, echoed Badger's earlier calls for a government-backed solution.

"Global pandemic risks are uninsurable by private insurers, and only the federal government has the financial resources to cover them," Worters said.

But President Donald Trump weighed in last month during a news conference, saying he was familiar with business interruption policies, believes losses from the pandemic are not excluded and insurers should pay the claims.

Houghtaling said Times Square billboard companies donated the time at 9:00 Eastern Time on Wednesday to “go dark” to emphasize that town squares around the country have gone dark because of the pandemic and insurance companies need to pay business interruption claims.

The darkness kicked off a 2-minute video message featuring actress Whoopi Goldberg, celebrity chef Eric Ripert, and others, including the nonprofit human rights group Simon Wiesenthal Center, which also had its business interruption claim denied.

The video ended by promoting the BIG Insurance Relief Act, saying it offers “a path forward where both benefits can be paid and insurance companies supported… if… insurance companies do the right thing.”

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