Still sticky: Insurance company should pay tar-stricken drivers

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Insurance companies are the butt of jokes and the object of vilification. Here's an example of why:

A year ago, as travelers were making their Thanksgiving holiday trips, a truck driver hauling a load for a Maryland company, completely unaware, was dumping a sticky, tar-like substance along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

This went on for 40 miles, and in the tanker's wake, tires on vehicles that followed it got completely gummed up and engines became clogged with sludge. In all, 1,000 vehicles sustained damage, but many of their owners have not yet been fully compensated for the necessary repairs.

Why? Because one of the trucking firm's insurers -- Hallmark Specialty Insurance Co. -- claims the accidental spill constituted "pollution" and its policy with the trucking firm, MTS Transport, doesn't cover any damage "arising out of or in any way related to pollution, however caused." In September, U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti rejected that position, noting that the spilled chemical was not classified as hazardous under federal law and that it did not harm water, land or air -- only the roadway and the vehicles that had been on it.

Her decision still may be appealed, which would cause further delays.

Not all insurers involved in this unusual calamity behaved irresponsibly.

MTS' other insurer, Travelers Indemnity Co., immediately deposited $1 million -- the limit of its policy -- into a court-supervised account for victims, even though its policy includes the same pollution exclusions that Hallmark is hiding behind. And many of the insurers that covered individual vehicles have paid their claims as well. But 616 damage claims totaling more than $1.6 million are pending.

Hallmark is responsible for both the disparity and the delay. It can make things right by forgoing an appeal of Judge Conti's order and making all of the motorists whole.

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