Local restaurant suing insurance companies refusing businesses payouts for pandemic

CINCINNATI — Primavista is a Price Hill Italian restaurant. Its owners are also suing Cincinnati insurance companies that refused to cover pandemic financial losses for small businesses like theirs.

When Primavista shut down in March and, later, reduced indoor dining in compliance with Ohio’s pandemic mandates, its owners thought their insurance policy would kick in and provide a financial safety net.

“At some point the businesses should be able to rely on insurance coverage if they’ve been paying premiums for years for it,” said Steve Wolterman, Primavista’s attorney, who spoke on behalf of the restaurant’s owners.

Owners Joan and Frank Lenkerd closed their restaurant on March 16 when governors across the country implemented pandemic shut-downs to slow the spread of COVID-19. They’ve since reduced capacity as well and as a result, they said they’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.

When the Lenkerds filed an insurance claim, their company denied it. So the couple sued on behalf of itself and businesses in similar situations.

“I think there’s thousands, hundreds of thousands, of businesses that are on the sidelines right now that haven’t made a claim yet because it’s their belief right off the bat that there wasn’t going to be coverage,” said Wolterman.

The insurance companies named in the lawsuit tried to request a judge dismiss the suit, arguing there was no property damage. On Friday, Hamilton County judge Thomas Beridon issued a two-page decision, stating Primavista can sue, because the insurance policies did not contain a virus exclusion.

He said he believes a reasonable jury could find that the restaurant is entitled to coverage.

The policy held by Primavista is an all-risk policy that covers losses due to business interruption, extra expense and actions of civil authority, according to court documents in the case. The insurance company said it disagrees.

“Our commercial property insurance policies require direct physical loss or damage to property and do not provide coverage in this case,” said a spokesperson for the company. The company also said it believes the language they’re interpreting in the policy contract will be enforced if the case goes to court.

Beridon’s ruling is the first in Hamilton County related to an insurer’s refusal to pay for losses tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it could change the way insurance companies handle these claims across the country.

“It would rewrite the game for business owners because there’s not many other areas where they can go back and recover, you know, all of this lost income,” said Wolterman.

The case is scheduled to go before a jury in 2022, but it’s possible the insurance company could settle before then.