What Is Cumulative Exposure?

In the insurance industry, the term “cumulative exposure” refers to situations in which a policyholder has been exposed to a hazard or source of damages over an extended period of time. 

In these situations, the policyholder may not become aware that they have been affected until long after the hazard first appeared. This can lead to complicated legal disputes in which the insurance company and policyholder disagree about which party is responsible for the related damages.

Key Takeaways

  • Cumulative exposure is a term used in the insurance industry that relates to situations where damages have been sustained over time, such as in the case of gradual exposure to pollutants or other sources of illness.
  • Cumulative exposure can make it difficult to determine whether the insurance company is at fault for damages, since the timing and source of the exposure is often unclear.

How Cumulative Exposure Works

Oftentimes, policyholders can easily determine when they have been exposed to a source of damages that could prompt them to file a claim. For example, a home insurance policyholder would know to file a claim if they see that their home has been burgled. Likewise, an auto insurance holder would file a claim shortly after being involved in an accident. These cases are therefore relatively easy to process from the perspective of the insurance company, since the nature and timing of the incidents involved are clear and occur shortly before the claim is filed.

Cumulative exposure, on the other hand, offers more room for disagreement. For instance, if a health insurance holder is exposed to toxic chemicals in their environment over a period of many years, it may be difficult for them to specify what caused the illness when they are filling out their insurance claim. After all, the insurance company could argue that it was a different factor, such as the policyholder’s lifestyle or genetics, that caused the sickness, or that the exposure to toxic chemicals occurred before or after the term of the insurance policy.

Another area where cumulative exposure is often discussed is in relation to workers’ compensation insurance claims. Oftentimes, workers will develop ailments that result from repetitive tasks spread out over their careers. Carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, has become increasingly common in recent years as a growing percentage of workers are employed in office jobs involving typing and other repetitive manual tasks. This condition, which involves potentially severe pain in the hands and arms and a reduction of muscle control, has led to a slew of insurance claims under workers’ compensation policies. Although policyholders might argue that their office work exposed them to cumulative exposure ultimately leading to their illness, their insurance companies might argue that the condition was brought about or exacerbated by other factors, such as obesity or repetitive tasks performed outside of work hours.

Real-World Example of Cumulative Exposure

A recent example of cumulative exposure took place in 2018. In that case, the plaintiff argued that the decedent’s father was exposed to the asbestos-laden clothes of her father, who was employed as an electrician, with additional exposure taking place over many years of replacing the brakes on the family cars.

The brakes in question were manufactured by the American multinational firm, Honeywell International Inc. (HON), leading the plaintiff to allege that the company was responsible for this cumulative exposure to asbestos. Although a jury initially sided with the plaintiff, finding Honeywell partially liable, this decision was later reversed on appeal.