Eastern District of Missouri Finds for Insurer in Meth Contamination Coverage Dispute

November 16, 2021

By Alexa Ackermann

This summer, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District issued a decision finding the “Ordinance or Law” provisions, contained in a homeowner’s insurance policy, barred coverage for a methamphetamine contamination loss.  In Vogelsang v. The Travelers Home & Marine Ins. Co., the homeowner sued Travelers for breach of contract and vexatious refusal to pay in order to recover costs to remove methamphetamine contamination in her house, following Travelers’ denial of her claim.  In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of Travelers.

The Travelers’ policy contained several provisions barring coverage for the costs of complying with an ordinance or law that requires an insured homeowner to remediate pollutants in a covered building.  The policy defined a “pollutant” as “any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste.”  St. Louis County, the local governing body, condemned the homeowner’s house and issued an “Order to Vacate” due to the methamphetamine contamination levels inside the home.

The homeowner argued there was coverage under the ordinance and law provisions of the insurance policy because (1) the ordinance at issue did not require a cleanup; and (2) that the substance at issue, i.e., methamphetamine, was not a pollutant.  The Court of Appeals rejected the homeowner’s arguments.

Being an issue of first impression in Missouri, the Court of Appeals unanimously held that methamphetamine met the definition of pollutant under the homeowners’ insurance policy.  Specifically, the Court held methamphetamine falls within the ordinary meaning of a “contaminant” because it is a substance that makes a house “unfit for use by the introduction of unwholesome or undesirable elements.”  Additionally, the Court held that the “Order to Vacate,” issued by St. Louis County, required the insured homeowner to clean up the methamphetamine contamination from the house.

The recent decision affirming the trial court’s granting of summary judgment is a win for insurance carriers in Missouri.  Even broad definitions of a pollutant, as used in the Travelers’ policy, can include hazardous toxins such as methamphetamine and, as a result, can bar coverage for any costs that a homeowner may incur resulting from cleaning up, removing or otherwise remediating a contamination of a pollutant in a home.

For a full copy of the opinion, please see Vogelsang v. The Travelers Home & Marine Ins. Co., ED 109377, 2021 WL 3086223, at *1 (Mo. Ct. App. E.D., June 29, 2021), Motion rehearing and/or Transfer to S. Ct. denied, Aug. 2, 2021, App. Transfer denied, Oct. 5, 2021.