In two posts earlier this year—South Carolina May No Longer Hold Insurers’ Reservations and The Insurer’s Mixed-Coverage Burden—we told you about an important decision issued by the South Carolina Supreme Court in Harleysville Group Insurance v. Heritage Communities, Inc. Those posts were written shortly after the court issued its original opinion on January 11, 2017. But on July 26, 2017, the court issued a new opinion replacing the original. So what has changed? Not much … and that’s a good thing for policyholders.
The Flint, Mich., water crisis returned to the news recently as criminal charges were brought against additional government employees resulting from the crisis. Meanwhile, a federal court in Pennsylvania recently issued a ruling in an insurance case that, like Flint, related to alleged contamination in drinking water stemming from corroded pipes. The decision rejects two insurers’ attempts to avoid coverage and serves as a good reminder of some fundamental insurance law principles—the duty to defend is broad, ambiguous policy language usually is construed against the insurer, and policies should be interpreted in favor of their purpose to provide coverage. It is also a reminder that the pollution exclusion is not nearly as all-encompassing as insurers like to think it is.
We put lights on the front of trains so we can see them approaching in a tunnel. And we buy insurance for the accidents that occur despite such precautions. General contractors try to manage their project risks by taking precautions to avoid accidents, but they also require subcontractors to name them as “additional insureds” on their general liability or project-specific insurance should an accident happen. Suppose you’ve done that. An accident follows: Your subcontractor injures a person on the project site as a result of your own workers’ failure to warn. You’re covered, right? Better slow down.
A few weeks back, we told you how South Carolina May No Longer Hold Insurers’ Reservations. In that post we left you with a teaser: “There’s more to this case.”
In fact, Harleysville Group Insurance v. Heritage Communities, Inc. does more than just take insurers to task with regard to their vague reservations of rights. Reaffirming that, in a case involving both covered and excluded losses, the insurer bears the burden of proving which damages are excluded from coverage, Harleysville shows how easily an insurer can find itself in a bind when trying to prove “no coverage” at the same time and in the same proceedings that it is providing a defense for its insured.
Say you want to make a reservation for a nice dinner. Do you call the restaurant and simply say you plan to come sometime in the next two weeks? Of course not. If you want your reservation to do any good, you give the restaurant a date, time, and number of people. So why should insurers be able to issue reservations of rights where they quote half the policy and say they may deny coverage at some time, based on some unspecified provision? The South Carolina Supreme Court was presented with that question and decided that insurers need to provide greater specificity or risk losing their reservations completely.
Over the past four months, a trio of cases has introduced a policyholder-friendly breath of fresh air to Iowa insurance coverage law as Iowa state and federal courts have found that defective workmanship may constitute a covered occurrence under the plain language of CGL policies.
Since 1979, commercial general liability (CGL) insurers have relied on the New Jersey Supreme Court case of Weedo v. Stone-E-Brick, Inc. and its progeny to argue that a subcontractor’s defective work can never qualify as an “occurrence” under a standard form ISO CGL policy. This argument is contrary to both the language of standard CGL policies and the trend in recent case law, but courts in New Jersey and elsewhere have continued to cite Weedo for this proposition. With its new decision in Cypress Point Condominium Association, Inc. v. Adria Towers, LLC, the New Jersey Supreme Court has now finally relegated Weedo to its proper status as an historical footnote based on outdated policy language.
Cypress Point involved claims for rain water damage to a condo building. When the condo association began noticing the damage, it brought claims against the developer/general contractor and several subcontractors. The association alleged that the subcontractors’ defective work on the exterior of the building allowed water leaks that damaged steel supports, sheathing and sheetrock, and insulation. When the developer’s CGL insurers refused to cover the claims, the association sued the insurers, seeking a declaration that the association’s claims against the developer were covered.
As we edge further into the summer months, many contractors see an increase in work volume with longer days and universally better weather. That said, Mother Nature is not always predictable, and an unexpected storm can quickly lead to a flash flood, or other natural disaster that might result in what insurers may classify as a pollution event. Even something seemingly as innocuous as water run-off from a job site following a summer shower has the potential to result in a third-party claim against a contractor for damage. Thus, it is imperative that contractors have the right pollution coverage in place to remain secure and profitable.
Colleagues Matthew D. Stockwell and Amanda Senske recently published an article in the June 2016 edition of Claims magazine, a PropertyCasualty360 publication, titled “Is That Product Liability Claim Covered?” In the article, they discuss Commercial General Liability insurance policies and whether or not these policies cover claims of bodily injury and property damage.
Ever since the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided Zeig v. Mass. Bonding & Insurance Co. in 1928, it has been well-settled that a policyholder can compromise a disputed claim with its insurer for less than the full limits of the policy without putting its rights to excess coverage at risk. In a seminal opinion by Judge Augustus Hand, the Zeig court said, “We can see no reason for a construction so burdensome to the insured,” to require collection of the full amount of primary polices in order to exhaust them. The Zeig court emphasized that a compromise payment by the primary insurer discharges the limits of the primary coverage, while the excess insurer is unharmed, since it must pay only the amount exceeding the attachment point of its policy.