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Insurers try to measure exposure to childhood sex abuse claims

Adult survivors of child abuse

Insurers do not yet have a handle on how significantly their bottom lines will be hit by rising childhood sexual abuse claims, but analysts say this is a major area of concern.

“I think it’s going to be a widespread issue” for the insurance sector, said Meyer Shields, managing director at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. in Baltimore. “I think broadly speaking, any insurance company that’s been in business for a long time, a couple of decades, in the casualty lines is going to have some exposure.”

“We can see the potential for rising levels of claims out of these civil suits,” said J. Paul Newsome, managing director for equity research at Sandler O’Neill & Partners in Chicago. “What’s not clear is the extent to which (policyholders) were insured.”

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have statute of limitation reviver laws on the books — eight of which opened the windows for filing claims this year, according to nonprofit Child USA, which tracks reviver legislation. The details of each law vary from state to state, but they open up the windows for a set period of time, up to a certain age, or are fully retroactive.

“This year we’ve had an explosion,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit that advocates to end child abuse and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ve reached a tipping point, and the culture is really taking the side of the victims, so we have a lot more revival statutes being enacted this year than we’ve ever seen.”

But the Child Victims Act signed by New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo in February has gained the most attention, experts say. The law extends the time to bring felony charges by five years — until the victim turns 28 — and allows victims to seek civil relief against abusers and enabling institutions until they turn 55. The one-year window to file claims that previously were or would have been dismissed under the prior law opened last Wednesday and it is widely expected to trigger a flood of civil lawsuits against schools and universities, religious institutions, municipal entities and other employers in the state.

The most claims filed under previous state revival efforts was about 1,150 claims in California, Ms. Hamilton noted. On Wednesday, about 400 claims were filed in New York, and the ultimate number may be in the range of 2,000 to 3,000, she said.

“We will see more claims over the course of the year, and we’ll see a bump up of claims at the end of the year because a 12-month period is a very short period of time to catch up on child sex abuse justice in a state where the statute of limitations was so ridiculously short,” Ms. Hamilton said.

Insurer exposure is likely to increase just because of extension of the time frame to seek compensation, said Vicky Riggs, senior financial analyst for Oldwick, New Jersey-based ratings firm A.M. Best Co. Inc. and co-author of a report on the growing risk for insurers.

“And definitely because of the sensitivity of the subject, I believe there will be more likelihood of settlement versus extensive litigation, investigation,” she said.

This rising exposure was a major source of concern and questioning by analysts during the latest round of insurance company earnings conference calls and will likely be a recurring theme in earnings reports going forward because insurers will likely have to adjust their prior-period reserves, analysts say.

Travelers Cos. Inc., the first insurer to report and generally a bellwether for the rest of the industry, stated that its general liability product line for primary and excess coverages included the “modest” impact of the enactment of reviver legislation.

“The impact on our book from these legislative changes in the second quarter was much smaller than the first-quarter impact from the adoption of similar legislation in New York,” Dan Frey, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Travelers, said during the insurer’s earnings conference call on July 23.

Christopher Swift, chairman and CEO of Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., declined to discuss specifics on the reviver statutes during the insurer’s earnings conference call on Aug. 2, but called it “a slippery slope to sort of open up years of case law and litigation and how contracts are resolved.”

“We’re in the business of paying claims, and we want to pay claims that are legitimate and where people are injured, but equally in some of these areas we’re going to be sensitive — and that’s a polite word of saying, if there were contributory actions or inactions that have consequences on our terms and conditions and our policies, we’ll be equally vigilant in asserting our rights because the rest of our policyholders would expect that,” he said.

Christopher Peirce, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Liberty Mutual Holding Co. Inc., said the insurer could not get into specifics but has not recognized an explicit reserve for child sexual abuse claim losses.

“We do view this as sort of a contingency event,” he said during the insurer’s earnings conference call on Aug. 8. “It’s just too early to tell whether this is going to drive actual losses that are higher or lower than what we would assume as normal contingency stuff. Needless to say, we’re watching it very closely and looking at our exposures, but nothing that’s caused us to react to our reserves at this point.”

“We historically in some of those earlier years were predominantly a workers comp writer,” he added. “We obviously wrote GL and have GL exposure, but back in those days we were a bigger comp writer than pure GL.”

Analysts say they are carefully monitoring insurer earnings reports for clues about the potential extent of losses.

“You’re looking for the first insurer to have the issue be important enough in the context of their total financial (results) that they have to start disclosing some of the details,” Mr. Newsome said. “That hasn’t happened yet, which is why investors are having such a hard time sizing the problem because we have no data to look at.”

“Companies have been legitimately hesitant to put out numbers because anytime they say the number, then they’re going to have a lawsuit the next day for that amount,” Mr. Shields said. “I think there is a reasonable concern about the need to manage this process without raising too many red flags at lawyers.”

“It’s really hard to get our arms around what the numbers are likely to be,” he continued. “I don’t think they’re brutal. I don’t think it’s going to be a market-changing event. It will just be something that insurance companies have to deal with. And it further illustrates the risk of insurance of the past not necessarily being over.”






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