The Illinois Supreme Court handed down a big win for policyholders just in time for the holidays. In Acuity v. M/I Homes of Chicago, LLC, the court joined the mainstream of jurisdictions and reversed years-old precedent that severely limited policyholders’ ability to tap their liability coverage for construction defect and faulty workmanship claims.
It’s a familiar story to anyone involved in insurance claims. A policyholder is sued and tenders the claim to its insurer. The insurer agrees to defend subject to a reservation of rights, but it also asserts that policy exclusions may ultimately preclude coverage. While the underlying litigation is ongoing, the insurer files suit against the policyholder seeking a declaration that it does not have a duty to indemnify if liability is established against the policyholder in that litigation.
A recent decision in the Middle District of Florida, Southern Owners Insurance Company v. Gallo Building Services, Inc., reminds us of the high bar an insurer must clear to avoid its duty to defend an insured—even when that insured is out of business.
A little over two months ago, we analyzed the recent decision in Black & Veatch Corp. v. Aspen Insurance (UK) Ltd., which placed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in line with a consistently expanding number of jurisdictions finding that a subcontractor’s faulty work constitutes an “occurrence” (defined as an accident) under standard form CGL language. The Tenth Circuit’s decision emphasized the “near unanimity” of state supreme court decisions since 2012 finding that construction defects constituted an occurrence (for example, New Jersey). Days after publishing our post on the Tenth Circuit’s decision, the Kentucky Supreme Court faced the same question. But rather than join the growing trend, the Kentucky court doubled down on its previous decision addressing the issue, finding for a second time since 2010 that a contractor’s faulty workmanship was not an “occurrence” under a CGL policy.
Developers need to keep an open mind to protect themselves against construction defect claims. Insurance is a vital tool, but it should not be the only one in a developer’s risk management toolbox.
Another useful tool—the ability to disclaim all liability for future construction defect claims when the property is sold to a third party and converted to condominiums—was recently upheld in South Carolina. In Long Grove at Seaside Farms, LLC et al. v Long Grove Property Owners’ Association Inc. et al., the South Carolina Supreme Court dismissed a previously accepted writ of certiorari as improvidently granted, thereby upholding the decisions of the trial and appellate courts dismissing defective construction claims brought by a condominium association against the original developer of an apartment complex.
It’s that time of the year when Americans gather together, enjoy a feast, and fall asleep in front of the TV. But before the tryptophan kicks in, we also like to give thanks for the good things that have happened in the past year. Corporate policyholders can share in the tradition, as this year has produced a number of court decisions that favored insureds and protected their coverage expectations. Here are a few of the cases we are most thankful for:
This case out of the South Carolina Supreme Court gave generously to policyholders in a number of ways this year (giving us the opportunity to post in this blog again and again and again). The case involved defective construction claims against a developer. The developer’s insurer, Harleysville, provided a defense under a vague reservation of rights letter. After the underlying plaintiffs were awarded verdicts against the developer, Harleysville sued to avoid covering the judgments. The court ruled against Harleysville on four issues:
- Harleysville’s vague, general reservation of rights letter did not effectively reserve its rights to contest coverage under the terms and exclusions in the policy;
- Where the underlying verdicts did not apportion the damages between covered and uncovered losses, the insurer bore the burden of proving amounts allocable to uncovered losses. Where the insurer failed to meet that burden, it had to cover the entire verdict;
- Punitive damages awarded in the verdicts were found to be covered under Harleysville’s policy; and
- The owners’ association, which was asserting the dissolved developer’s coverage rights in the case, had standing to challenge the insurer’s reservation of rights letter.
Harleysville is a case that just keeps on giving.
The duty to provide a defense, or reimburse defense costs, is one of the most important features of liability insurance. You could say it’s the stuffing, where indemnity is the turkey. The Delaware Superior Court emphasized that obligation in Verizon to the tune of $48 million in defense costs that the insurer had refused to pay. This decision was important because it rejected the insurer’s attempt to define the vague term “securities claim” narrowly to avoid its obligation to pay defense costs. More broadly, the court upheld the pro-policyholder interpretative doctrine of contra proferentem, rejecting the insurer’s argument that the doctrine should not apply where the insured is a large, sophisticated corporation. Applying the doctrine, the court held that unless it can be shown that the insured had a hand in drafting the policy language, ambiguous terms should be interpreted against the insurer. A more detailed analysis of the decision by this firm can be found here.
Thanksgiving dinner is always better with more guests. Additional Insured endorsements in policies extend the invitation to more parties that may require a seat at the table of insurance protection. This is especially important in the construction context, where developers and general contractors rely on numerous subcontractors’ insurance policies to protect them from liability arising from those subcontractors’ work. These two decisions rejected insurers’ attempts to narrow the application of additional insured endorsements.
In All State Interior, previously highlighted here, a New York County trial court interpreted an endorsement broadly, granting additional insured status to companies that didn’t technically contract with the subcontractor, and who weren’t named in the endorsement. The court, in essence, incorporated the terms of the contract between All State and the subcontractor into the endorsement to trigger additional insured coverage for the project owner, site lessor, and construction manager as All State’s “partners, directors, officers, employees, agents and representatives.”
In McMillin, the insurer’s policy granted additional insured status to McMillin, the general contractor of a project, for “liability arising out of [the subcontractor’s] ongoing operations,” and excluded additional insured status for the insured’s completed operations. The insurer denied defense coverage on the basis that the subcontractor had finished working on the project. The California Court of Appeal disagreed, stating that the endorsement’s phrase “arising out of” is broader than “during,” and so the liability did not have to arise while the insured was still working on the project.
When it’s time for dessert, allocating the available pie to make sure everyone gets what they deserve can be tricky. This year, Missouri joined the ranks of “all sums” states that maximize coverage for policyholders with long-tail claims stretching over several years. The “all sums” method of allocation allows an insured to allocate all of its damages from long-tail losses to a single year of coverage. This ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals was based on the plain language of the policies, which promise to indemnify the insured for all sums the insured is legally obligated to pay for occurrences during the policy period. The court also ruled that all triggered primary policies across a period of years need not be exhausted before excess policies in the period selected by the policyholder can be triggered. The court ruled that only the primary policy in one year needs to be exhausted before that year’s excess policies are triggered. For a more thorough analysis of this case, click here.
Rather than brave the stampedes of Black Friday, one can get good deals on holiday gifts on Cyber Monday. But to protect against cyber thieves, make sure your insurance coverage will protect you. In this case, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York interpreted the computer fraud provision of a crime policy to do just that. Policyholder Medidata was the victim of fraud when someone tricked its employees into wiring money overseas, using spoofed emails that looked like they came from the company’s president. Medidata’s insurer denied its claim, stating that the computer fraud clause of the crime coverage required actual hacking into and manipulation of Medidata’s computer system. But the court sided with Medidata, ruling that the spoofing of emails violated the integrity of the insured’s computer system enough to trigger coverage, and actual entry by hackers was not required by the policy language or by precedent.
We at Pillsbury hope you all had a very Happy Thanksgiving!
An unexpected or catastrophic loss can force any company out of business, even if it is insured. You must understand your company’s risks and how your insurance policies cover those risks in order to manage them and maintain stability.
Having the correct insurance in place is only the first step. Property and business interruption insurance policies are often complex, and your suppliers, customers and other business partners’ insurance situation may have a direct impact on you as well. Even if your business doesn’t suffer any direct physical damage to its facilities following a natural disaster or other loss, your customers or suppliers may have, and that could result in what is known as a “supply chain” or “contingent business interruption” loss of revenue and sales. If you are unprepared when a disaster strikes, you may miss out on substantial amounts of insurance coverage to which you may be entitled. The time to prepare is before a disaster occurs. Take the time now to understand your insurance coverage and other risk transfer methods and opportunities. Know your rights. And put a plan in place to protect yourself, your employees, and your property before the loss occurs. Then, if disaster strikes, you’ll be in a better position to make it through and to access your insurance coverage to help restore operations.
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.
Is damage resulting from faulty workmanship covered under your CGL policy? In the past, insurers have had success in certain jurisdictions arguing that construction defect cases did not constitute a covered “occurrence” because the damage was purportedly not unintended or unexpected. In recent years, however, courts have shifted course; the majority of courts have found that property damage arising out of faulty workmanship constitutes an “occurrence” under standard-form CGL policies. Additionally, some states enacted legislation requiring CGL policies to define occurrence to include property damage or bodily injury resulting from faulty workmanship, or have made it easier for insureds to obtain coverage for damages as a result of work the insureds performed.
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.