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 little under two years ago, we wrote about the fatal Oxford comma—you know, the one that comes before “and” in a list—and the impact of its omission on a court’s interpretation of a Maine employment statute. The court effectively gave a $10 million lesson in grammar and ambiguity, but its holding was not revolutionary to a coverage attorney.
Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court unfortunately narrowed the scope of coverage for a subcontractor’s faulty workmanship. The court held in Ohio Northern University v. Charles Construction Services, Inc. that faulty workmanship in a construction defect case is not an “occurrence” under standard-form CGL policies in Ohio. The circumstances will sound familiar to anyone involved in the construction industry: Ohio Northern University retained Charles Construction to build a hotel and conference center on campus. The contract required Charles to maintain a CGL policy with Products-Completed Operations-Hazard coverage. Charles obtained a policy from Cincinnati Insurance Company with the required coverage.
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 is axiomatic that in order to obtain insurance coverage a policyholder must first establish that a claim falls within a policy’s insuring agreement before coverage under the policy is triggered. For construction claims brought under CGL policies, that frequently means showing that the damages at issue constitute “property damage” caused by an “occurrence” (where “occurrence” is generally defined as “an accident”). While this requirement may often seem like a simple factual question, in the context of a subcontractor’s faulty workmanship, the analysis has proven more difficult. Where alleged faulty work causes damage only to the insured’s own work product, is the property damage accidental?
As James Taylor might say, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, but will my insurance cover the damage? California has certainly seen plenty of fire and rain. In the aftermath of the state’s most recent devastating events, damages are estimated to top $5 billion. As Californians file insurance claims to cover their losses, coverage for flooding and mudslide damage has come into focus.
Any construction professional working in Florida likely is familiar with the state’s notice and opportunity to repair statute (“chapter 558”) that creates a process for trying to resolve construction defect claims without litigation. As the first step in this mandatory process, a property owner must serve a chapter 558 notice on the construction professional, which notice describes the alleged defects and damages. Many construction professionals submit chapter 558 notices to their general liability insurers and request a defense. But it has always been an open question whether the chapter 558 process is a “suit” triggering an insurer’s duty to defend—until now. In Altman Contractors, Inc. v. Crum & Forster Specialty Insurance Company, the Florida Supreme Court decided that the chapter 558 process is a “suit” but left open the possibility that the process is only a “suit” when an insurer says it is. In a per curiam opinion in the original federal case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit relied on the Florida Supreme Court’s opinion to vacate the district court decision holding that the chapter 558 process is not a “suit” and remanded the case for further proceedings.
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!
In a previous blog post, we addressed blanket additional insured endorsements, and the circumstances under which Company A could become an additional insured under Company B’s policy, even where Company B failed to add Company A to the policy. In that same vein, a New York trial court granted additional insured status to entities that did not even contract with the named insured, but were referenced in the named insured’s subcontract. Owners and General Contractors should take note of this decision, as it creates the potential for insured status even where there is a lack of contractual privity.
In the world of construction, whether you’re a lender, owner, contractor or subcontractor, your success hinges largely on risk management. While there’s no substitute for sound business and construction practices (such as proper preconstruction planning, proven construction means and methods, use of experienced personnel, and stringent safety programs), among the most important project risk allocation tools are the contracts governing the various parties’ rights and obligations. Within those contracts, risk is primarily allocated through indemnity and insurance requirement provisions. When preparing insurance requirements for construction-related contracts, it is crucial to ensure these pieces are well-fitted and comfortable, like a good piece of tailoring. This requires the indemnity and risk obligations associated with each project discipline to be clearly identiﬁed and addressed.