Their lawsuit, lodged on Wednesday, is the latest in a growing battle between insurers and clients brought to their knees by global business closures to halt the Covid-19 pandemic, and comes less than two weeks after a Paris restaurant owner won a similar challenge against Axa.
David Genillon and Valerie Nassi accuse the Paris-based multinational of failing to honour their claim of €17,000, filed for more than two months of lost income after France closed restaurants, bars and all non-essential businesses at the height of the pandemic.
They have run Le Bacchus, a restaurant in the town of Lancie in eastern France, since 2013, and had taken out a so-called “professional multi-risk” insurance policy with Axa that covers them for losses due to “administrative closure… as a result of contagious disease, murder, suicide, epidemic or poisoning.”
Axa turned down their claim, however, citing an exclusionary clause specifying that any “epidemic” had to be limited to the insured restaurant, and not a generalised shutdown.
“This is an abusive clause, a contractual trick,” the couple's lawyer Jean-Jacques Rinck told journalists at the commercial court of Lyon.
“Axa knew the company would not pay out by drafting this exclusionary clause. This can be considered a scam,” he added.
Rinck said there were about 50 other similar cases, “and we hope that the decision (of the commercial court) of Lyon will create a legal precedent.”
Genillon said he had felt secure in the knowledge that his restaurant was adequately covered, since the insurance contract specifically mentioned coverage in the case of “epidemic”.
“If we lose, it jeopardises the very existence of our establishment,” he said on exiting the courtroom.
Axa's lawyer Pascal Ormen said the clause was “perfectly valid” and asked the judges to dismiss the case.
“When several establishments are affected (by an epidemic), it is a collective closure, and Axa cannot cover the operating losses,” he argued.
The plaintiffs sought an urgent ruling from the court, which has been set for June 10th.
Last month, Axa lost a similar case to the Parisian restaurateur Stephane Manigold, with a court ordering the insurer to pay some €70,000 in compensation for lost business during the lockdown.
But Ormen said there had been no exclusion clause in Manigold's contract.
The hospitality industry in France was particularly hard hit by a lockdown the government credits with saving tens of thousands of lives, even though it took a huge toll on the economy.
France's tourism sector, including cafes, bars and restaurants, has been promised some €18 billion in government aid.
The industry employs about two million people and represents more than seven percent of gross domestic product in France, one of the world's most visited destinations.
Cafes, bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen their doors on Tuesday, though in the Paris region, considered at high risk of ongoing coronavirus spread, eating and drinking establishments can host clients exclusively at outside tables.
Axa said Wednesday that it expected the coronavirus outbreak to cut its operating profit by some 1.5 billion euros this year, mainly because of claims to cover operating losses and event cancellations.”
The company reported operating profit of €6.5 billion in 2019.
France's FFA insurers' federation has said the coronavirus-related losses of clients – which it estimates at about €60 billion – are too high for insurance companies to be able to cover.