“If you can’t reach out and touch it, it is not insured.” That was the gist of a court’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by a company that lost a large amount of electronically stored data when an employee inadvertently pressed the “delete” key on a keyboard. The company looked to its insurer to cover the expenses for restoring the data and to recover lost income caused by the disruption. The insurer denied coverage on the basis of policy language that limited coverage to a “direct physical loss of or damage to” covered property.
The language from the policy was meant to be interpreted in its ordinary and popular sense. Thus, “physical” means “tangible” or capable of being touched. The information in a computerized database, in and of itself, has no material or tangible existence, unlike a storage medium for information, such as a disk, tape, or even papers in a file cabinet. The court concluded that when the employee sent the data into thin air with an unintended keystroke, there was no direct physical loss within the meaning of the insurance policy. (The court distinguished this case from another case in which the loss of a computer tape and the data on it were covered under a policy covering “physical injury or destruction of tangible property.”)
Recognizing that the dictionary was not on its side, the company that lost its data also argued that public policy should weigh heavily in favor of insurance coverage. After all, loss of information in the same manner as occurred in this case is common, and our economy unquestionably is highly dependent on computers and the intangible information that they contain. However, the court declined to use public policy as an “interpretive aid.” There are plenty of useful legal principles for construing insurance contracts, but using public policy to redefine the scope of coverage agreed to by parties to a contract is not one of them. The lesson: Questions of insurance coverage are to be answered solely in the language of the policies and, therefore, careful drafting of policy language is critical.