United Kingdom

Hotel refused £250,000 payout as judge rules they are covered for bubonic plague but not Covid

The owners of a five-star hotel have been refused a £250,000 insurance payout after a judge ruled they were covered for bubonic plague but not Covid.

Rockliffe Hall in County Durham has been fighting insurers who refused to pay out after the pandemic 'devastated' business.

The hotel near Darlington, which is owned by Middlesbrough FC chairman Steve Gibson through a company, claimed it was due a £250,000 payout as it was insured for losses caused by various exotic illnesses, including 'plague'.

A judge has backed insurers' decision not to pay up, saying the 18th century hotel, which appeared in Michael Caine crime thriller Get Carter, was covered for the plague which swept through Europe 500 years ago - but not the modern day 'plague' of Covid-19.  

Mrs Justice Cockerill rejected Rockliffe's claim that the policy covered for a generic biblical type 'plague', although she might have thought differently if it included 'famine, war and pestilence' too.

Rockliffe Hall in County Durham had applied for an insurance £250,000 insurance payout, as it claimed the Covid-19 pandemic has 'devastated' business

Rockliffe, a five-star 61-bed country hotel and golf spa built around a picturesque 18th century hall, is located at Hurworth on Tees, close to the North Yorkshire Moors.

It served as a backdrop for scenes in the 1971 Michael Caine classic Get Carter, which was filmed on location in various parts of the North Eeast, and Middlesbrough FC players also train in part of the grounds.

The High Court heard that the hotel's insurance policy with Travelers Insurance Company Ltd covered them for up to £250,000 for impact on its business caused by infectious diseases.

Insurers refused to payout the sum to the hotel, which was used to film Michael Caine film Get Carter, and a judge has supported their decision, finding it was covered against the bubonic plague, but not Covid-19

The hotel, owned by Middlesbrough FC chairman Steve Gibson, had claimed the insurance referred to plague in a biblical sense. However, Mrs Justice Cockerill rejected that claim, saying she would have found differently had it been stated next to 'war, famine and pestilence'

But when a claim went in, the insurers refused to pay up, pointing out that 'infectious disease' was defined in the policy by reference to a list of 34 diseases, in which Covid-19 did not appear.

The list covered everything from mumps and chicken pox to bubonic plague, but not Covid-19, the court heard.

Suing for a £250,000 maximum payout under the policy, Rockliffe Hall Ltd argued that the inclusion of 'plague' in the list would be read by an ordinary person as including the Covid-19 pandemic.

But Mrs Justice Cockerill ruled in favour of the insurers that the policy specifically referred to bubonic plague and its variants.

She said she might have taken a different view however had the wording in the policy used a biblical definition of plague instead.

'In this context, 'plague' means an infectious disease caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria,' she said.

'Matters might of course be different if "plague" were in the company of "famine, war and pestilence",' the judge added, referencing the four horsemen of the apocalypse which appear in the New Testament's final book, Revelation, an apocalypse written by John of Patmos, as well as in the Old Testament's prophetic Book of Zechariah, and in the Book of Ezekiel, where they are named as punishments from God.

'The question raised is one which is very much of this moment in time. Rockliffe Hall, which is a golf course and hotel, has found its business devastated by the current Covid-19 pandemic.

'It has made a claim on its business interruption insurance with Travelers. Travelers say that the claim is doomed to fail because the terms of its policy are clear and do not cover such losses

Rockliffe, a five-star 61-bed country hotel and golf spa built around a picturesque 18th century hall, is located at Hurworth on Tees, close to the North Yorkshire Moors

Insurers refused to pay up, pointing out that 'infectious disease' was defined in the hotel's policy by reference to a list of 34 diseases, in which Covid-19 did not appear

'When put alongside cholera, smallpox and typhus, it is natural to read 'plague' as meaning specifically and only its bubonic, pneumonic or septicaemic forms. This is a point to which Rockliffe has no real answer.

'I have no hesitation in concluding that in this context, the word 'plague' is obviously intended, on a common-sense reading and proper construction of the clause, to refer to a specific disease: i.e. 'an infectious disease caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria'.

'When one looks at the list, the word 'plague' is surrounded by words which can only refer to specific diseases... in this context, 'plague' means an infectious disease caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria.

'It would thus be pointless... to allow this case to proceed. This case is best and most appropriately dealt with summarily. Accordingly I grant Travelers' application. The claimant's claim is struck out,' the judge concluded.' 

Bubonic plague: Killed more than one in three Europeans 

Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is carried by fleas and transmitted between animals.

The bubonic plague - the most common form - is caused by the bite of an infected flea and can spread through contact with infectious bodily fluids or contaminated materials. 

Patients may show signs of fever and nausea and at an advanced stage may develop open sores filled with pus.  

It devastated Europe in the Middle Ages, most notably in the Black Death of the 1340s which killed a third or more of the continent's population. 

After the Black Death plague became a common phenomenon in Europe, with outbreaks recurring regularly until the 18th century. 

Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is carried by fleas and transmitted between animals. The picture above is a 3D illustration of the bacterium

When the Great Plague of 1665 hit, a fifth of people in London died, with victims shut in their homes and red crosses painted on the door. 

Bubonic plague has almost completely vanished from the rich world, with 90 per cent of all cases now found in Africa. 

It is now treatable with antibiotics, as long as they are administered quickly. 

Still, there have been a few non-fatal cases in the U.S., with an average of seven reported a year, according to disease control bosses. 

From 2010 to 2015 there were 3,248 cases reported worldwide, including 584 deaths, says the World Health Organisation. 

Some plague vaccines have been developed, but none are available to the general public. 

The WHO does not recommend vaccination except for high-risk groups such as health care workers.  

Without antibiotics, the bubonic strain can spread to the lungs – where it becomes the more virulent pneumonic form.  

Pneumonic plague, which can kill within 24 hours, can then be passed on through coughing, sneezing or spitting.  

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