Courts don’t look kindly upon insurance company shell games. In Preferred Contractors Ins. Co. v. Baker & Son Construction, the Washington Supreme Court slapped down an insurer’s attempt to manipulate the type of general liability “trigger” it wrote to sell coverage that was illusory.
What is subrogation? Why am I being asked to waive it? Should I care? To answer that last question, let’s take a quick run at the first two.
What Is Subrogation?
“Subrogation” refers to the act of one person or party standing in the place of another person or party. It is a legal right held by most insurance carriers to pursue a third party that caused an insurance loss in order to recover the amount the insurance carrier paid the insured to cover the loss. This occurs when (i) the insurance carrier makes a payment on behalf of its insured as the result of a covered accident or injury, and then (ii) the insurer then seeks repayment from the at-fault party.
Loyal readers of this blog may recall our recent analysis of Norwegian Hull Club v. North Star Fishing Co., an insurance coverage dispute that appeared likely to turn on the meaning of a blank space in a very large builder’s risk policy. After bench trial, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle has filled that gap—giving the policyholders most, but not all, of the coverage that they sought. Under the judge’s decision, based upon industry custom and practice, that blank space provided the policyholder with nearly $20 million in extra coverage.
Insurance coverage disputes often turn on the meaning of the specific words used in a policy. Norwegian Hull Club v. North Star Fishing Co., currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, presents a twist—it turns on the meaning of a blank space.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle ruled that neither the policyholder nor the insurer was entitled to summary judgment regarding the interpretation of a critical policy provision, reasoning that an empty field rendered the clause ambiguous. But as the case now proceeds to trial, the most interesting part of the district court’s opinion might be its own blank space: contra proferentem, the argument it doesn’t address.
Earlier in 2022, CBRE forecasted a 14.1% year-over-year increase in construction costs by year-end 2022, as labor and material costs continue to rise, despite the expectation that overall cost inflation for materials would begin to cool by the end of the year. Commercial construction costs have indeed increased, as Turner Construction Company’s Third Quarter 2022 Building Cost Index reported an 8.62% yearly increase from the third quarter of 2021, a 2.18% quarterly increase from the second quarter of 2022. In addition to supply chain issues for building materials, skilled labor shortages and construction wage growth persists.
In a previous post, we addressed blanket additional insured endorsements and the role they play in passing insurance obligations downstream. In short, the purpose of a “blanket” endorsement is to grant additional insured status to any company as required in a written contract with the named insured. This obligation often begins in the prime contract where the owner requires additional insured status on the general contractor’s insurance. However, the general contractor typically attempts to pass this obligation downstream to its subcontractor by including a requirement in the subcontract that both the general contractor and owner are named as additional insureds. But what happens if there is no written agreement between the named insured and the company seeking additional insured status, or if there are multiple required additional insured entities and only some have contractual privity with the subcontractor?
Times of crisis can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, times like this can also be an opportunity for exploitation of inexpensive, and potentially forced, labor. As America reopens its economy, it is likely that we will begin to see a surge in many industries. The resulting demand for labor, coupled with unprecedented unemployment and related desperation not only in America, but worldwide, could lead unscrupulous individuals and companies to exploit American and foreign workers. We saw this with previous disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, where foreign laborers were exploited in the rebuilding process with false promises of citizenship. Now, to be clear, exploitation occurs even during times of economic prosperity; however, it can be even more pronounced and egregious when people must deal with uncertainties and hardships never before experienced in their lifetimes.
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.