Inadvertent Construction Defects Are an ‘Occurrence’ Under the CGL Insurance Policy

Clifford J. Shapiro | Barnes & Thornburg

Whether property damage caused by defective construction work constitutes an accidental “occurrence” under the standard form Commercial General Liability (CGL) insurance policy is now highly dependent on which state’s law applies. Determining which state’s law applies to a particular construction defect claim is therefore critical and often outcome determinative.

The current status of each’s state’s law can be found in the Barnes & Thornburg Construction Law Practice Group’s 50 state survey of the “occurrence” issue.

This article discusses some of the correct and the incorrect ways that courts are currently addressing this issue. In particular, it focuses on the failed state of the law in Illinois, a state that continues to use an incorrect and outdated analysis to determine whether construction defects constitute an “occurrence” under the CGL insurance policy.

A majority of jurisdictions find that defective or faulty workmanship can constitute an “occurrence” under the modern day CGL insurance policy. Generally, these jurisdictions find that defective construction work that occurs unintentionally is a fortuitous “accident,” and therefore an “occurrence” within the meaning of the coverage grant in the CGL policy. Other jurisdictions find that unintentional defective work can constitute an accidental “occurrence” if the defective work causes property damage to something other than the defective work itself. In all of these jurisdictions, a policyholder can potentially trigger coverage for a construction defect claim, assuming other terms and exclusions in the policy do not apply to bar coverage.

A minority of jurisdictions still hold that construction defect claims do not, and cannot, give rise to an accidental “occurrence” within the meaning of the CGL insurance policy, and therefore refuse to provide any coverage at all for construction defect claims. This is the situation in Illinois, and frankly the law in Illinois needs to be corrected.

The modern day CGL insurance policy contains two key parts: the coverage grant and the policy exclusions. The coverage grant broadly provides insurance coverage up to the policy limits for amounts the policyholder becomes legally obligated to pay because of “property damage” caused by an accidental “occurrence.” The CGL policy then narrows and defines the actual scope of insurance coverage for a particular claim through the many policy exclusions.

The correct legal analysis recognizes that there is an accidental “occurrence” under the CGL policy coverage grant when a claim alleges that a general contractor or subcontractor caused property damage by accidentally (not intentionally) performing faulty construction work. Whether or not coverage exists for the claim is then determined by examining the various construction-specific policy exclusions that may apply to the particular situation.

The correct legal analysis then examines the kind of property damage at issue only as required by the analysis of the policy exclusions, and not to determine in the first instance if the claim involves an accidental “occurrence.” This is a very important difference. A threshold finding of no “occurrence” is an absolute bar to coverage, which means there is no possibility of coverage and therefore no duty to defend the policyholder against the claim.

On the other hand, a finding that the claim involves an accidental “occurrence” then requires analysis of the claim under the policy exclusions. This often leads to a finding that there is at least potential coverage for part of the claim, and the insurance company is therefore required to provide its policyholder with a defense at the carrier’s cost. As a result, the applicable law regarding the “occurrence” issue can, and often does, dramatically affect the policyholder’s financial posture for a construction defect claim.

A policyholder is more likely to have coverage in jurisdictions that recognize construction defects can be an “occurrence” and properly examine the applicable policy exclusions. For example, in the completed operations context, the “your work” exclusion generally applies to bar coverage for the cost to repair or replace property damage caused by the work of the policyholder, but it also has a specific “subcontractor exception” that does not bar coverage for property damage arising out of the work of the policyholder’s subcontractors. Thus, in a jurisdiction that recognizes that construction defects can be an accidental “occurrence,” a general contractor generally will have coverage for property damage caused by the work of its subcontractors.

While a subcontractor does not have the benefit of the subcontractor exception in the “your work” exclusion, a subcontractor can still have coverage under the correct analysis of the CGL policy if its work causes property damage to other work (i.e., property damage outside of the subcontractor’s own scope of work). The reason for this is not that the claim alleges an accidental “occurrence” because there is damage to other work. Rather, the correct conclusion is based on the “your work” exclusion, which generally excludes coverage for the cost to repair or replace the policyholder’s own defective work, but does not exclude the cost to repair or replace damage to other work.

The legal framework used by the Illinois courts is fundamentally flawed. In fact, it fails to apply the terms of the CGL insurance policy as intended by the insurance companies themselves.

Illinois decisions currently hold (incorrectly) that inadvertent construction defects cannot be an “occurrence” unless the defective work causes property damage to something other than the “project,” “building” or “structure.” Most, but not all, of these decisions address the coverage question in situations where the policy holder was a general contractor. The cases find that there can never be an “occurrence” – and that there is therefore no insurance coverage at all for the claim – if the alleged property damage was to any property within the general contractor’s scope of work. Because the general contractor’s scope of work usually includes construction of the entire building or project, this analysis finds that a CGL insurance policy provides no coverage at all to a general contractor for any claim that involves property damage to the building or project. This virtually eliminates insurance coverage for construction defect claims for general contractors. Under this analysis, there can only be insurance coverage if the claim includes property damage to something other than the project or building being constructed.

Among other things, this analysis fails to apply the “your work” exclusion as intended by the insurance contract. The correct legal analysis recognizes that there would be no reason to have an exclusion for property damage caused by the “work” of the policyholder if the “occurrence” requirement in the coverage grant did not allow any possible coverage for property damage caused by inadvertent construction defects in the first place. And there would certainly be no reason for the same exclusion to have an exception that specifically restores coverage for property damage caused by the policyholder’s subcontractors if there never could have been an accidental “occurrence” within the meaning of the policy’s coverage grant in the first place. In short, the Illinois analysis makes the “your work” exclusion essentially meaningless.

Unfortunately, the incorrect analysis is now very established in Illinois. For more than twenty years, Illinois appellate courts have repeatedly applied the incorrect analysis to deny insurance coverage for construction industry policyholders facing construction defect claims, and the Illinois Supreme Court has never decided the issue. Illinois appellate court cases continue to hold that there can never be an “occurrence” if the policyholder is a general contractor and the alleged damage was to any part of the project or building itself. As a result, Illinois decisions continue incorrectly to collapse what should be a second and separate analysis of coverage under the applicable policy exclusions (including the “your work” exclusion) into the initial threshold coverage determination of whether the claim involves an accidental “occurrence.”

Illinois decisions also continue to disregard or fail to apply the well accepted requirement that an insurance policy must be read and interpreted as a whole. Instead of applying the “your work” exclusion as intended, Illinois decisions often simply state that the legal analysis does not need to even consider the “your work” exclusion. The decisions find that construction defect claims for property damage within the policyholder’s scope of work are simply not sufficiently “fortuitous” or “accidental” to constitute an “occurrence.” This reasoning is based on an outdated judicial gloss that is not found in the insurance policy itself. It is based on old reasoning used by certain courts and commentators before the CGL policy terms were materially changed, including in 1986. Those changes to the policy modified the exclusions (including the “your work” exclusion) to clarify that the CGL policy provides coverage for certain kinds of property damage caused by inadvertent faulty workmanship, and that the scope of that coverage is found in the policy exclusions.

Illinois Coverage for Subcontractors: Correct Result, Wrong Analysis

Until recently, there was uncertainty whether the same incorrect “scope of work” analysis for the “occurrence” issue would be applied in Illinois to claims against subcontractors. Some federal decisions held that there could be an “occurrence” if the subcontractor’s defective work caused property damage to some other part of the project or building outside of its scope of work. But other decisions held that the subcontractor, like the general contractor, could not show the existence of any accidental “occurrence” if the claim involved property damage to any part of the entire project or building.

On March 29, 2019 the First District of the Illinois Appellate Court issued an opinion in Acuity Insurance Co. v. 950 W. Huron Condominium Association that directly answers the “occurrence” question for insured subcontractors. The decision finds that a subcontractor can have insurance coverage for an inadvertent construction defect claim under a CGL policy in Illinois if the claim involves property damage to a part of the project that is outside of the subcontractor’s scope of work. A 2017 Seventh Circuit decision in Westfield Ins. Co. v. National Decorating Service also finds that a general contractor can have coverage under its subcontractor’s insurance policy as an additional insured where the general contractor is being sued for defective work performed by its subcontractor that caused damage to property outside of the subcontractor’s scope of work.

Applying Illinois’ flawed analysis, Acuity and Westfield essentially arrive at the correct outcome for claims that involve resulting property damage caused by subcontractors – but for an absolutely wrong reason. Worse, the decisions do nothing to remedy current Illinois law that continues to deny coverage for general contractors even when the claim involves property damage that arises out of the work of subcontractors. Under that law, the general contractor who worked on the same project at issue in Acuity would not be able to obtain any insurance coverage for the loss under its own CGL policy even if the claim involved the exact same property damage caused by the same subcontractor. This is absurd, as the subcontractor exception in the “your work” exclusion should apply in this circumstance to allow coverage for the general contractor under these circumstances.

Similarly, while the insured subcontractor in the Acuity case should have insurance coverage for part of the cost to repair the property damage, it is not because the existence of property damage outside of the subcontractor’s scope of work somehow created an “occurrence.” Instead, the “occurrence” requirement in the policy was satisfied by the accidental and inadvertent nature of subcontractor’s defective work, and the scope of coverage for the claim should have been determined by the applicable policy exclusions. Here, the subcontractor’s defective work itself should be excluded from coverage under the “your work” exclusion in the subcontractor’s CGL policy. But that exclusion does not apply to the resulting property damage to the other non-defective parts of the work, including the damage that the subcontractor caused to other parts of the project. It is for this reason, and not because the claim somehow fails to allege an accidental “occurrence,” that the subcontractor has coverage for the resulting damage it caused to other parts of the project.

Will Illinois Law Ever Be Corrected?

The Acuity case presented a rare opportunity for the Illinois Supreme Court to reconsider and correct Illinois law, but unfortunately the court recently refused to accept the opportunity to decide the case on appeal. Illinois therefore continues to have an incorrect analysis in its case law for determining whether construction defect claims are covered by the CGL insurance policy. The Illinois Supreme Court needs to consider this issue and publish a decision that finally addresses and corrects the law in Illinois, or the Illinois legislature needs to take up and pass corrective legislation.

Illinois Appellate Court Clarifies What Is and Is Not an “Occurrence” in the Construction Defect Context

Marianne Bradley and Anthony Miscioscia |White and Williams

On December 31, 2019, the First District Illinois Appellate Court issued its decision in Owners Insurance Company v. Precision Painting & Decorating Corporation, clarifying what does and does not constitute “property damage” caused by an “occurrence” in the construction defect context. 2019 IL App. (1st) 190926-U, 2019 Ill. App. Unpub. Lexis 2425.

The underlying case involved allegations of negligence, consumer fraud and breach of contract. In particular, the underlying homeowner claimants alleged that Precision Painting & Decorating Corporation (Precision), whom the homeowners had hired to perform certain exterior paintwork at their home, failed to conform to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations with respect to the presence of lead-based paint. In its contract, Precision had agreed to take special care with respect to containing lead dust while working on the homeowners’ property. Despite having agreed to do so, Precision (allegedly) took almost no precautions, resulting in significant contamination to the interior of the home.

Owners Insurance Company (Owners) had issued Precision a CGL policy, providing coverage for “property damage” caused by an “occurrence,” defined as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.”

Precision tendered its defense to Owners. Owners filed a DJ Action arguing that it owed no duty to defend as the homeowners had failed to allege any “property damage” caused by an “occurrence.” Specifically, Owners argued that, under Illinois law, damages resulting from an insured’s breach of contract are not recoverable under a CGL policy.

The trial court agreed, finding that no “accident” or “occurrence” was alleged. The trial court observed that the homeowners’ contract with Precision had specifically provided for various EPA-required precautions with respect to the use of lead-based paint. The trial court concluded that Precision’s failure to implement those precautions was not an “accident,” which in the trial court’s view, referred to something “unforeseen or untoward or disastrous.” Instead, the trial court characterized Precision’s conduct as nothing more than a foreseeable breach of contract.

Precision appealed, and the Appellate Court reversed and remanded. The Appellate Court found that the trial court’s focus on foreseeability was misplaced. It observed that: “[i]nstead of focusing on the foreseeability of the event itself (the release of lead-based particles), or even generally the damages (lead contamination),” Illinois case law instructs courts “to focus on what, specifically, was damaged, and whether the remediation of that damage fits within the general purpose of a CGL policy.” Id. at *12 (emphasis added). The Appellate Court emphasized that: “when the underlying lawsuit against the insured contractor alleges damages beyond repair and replacement, and beyond damage to other parts of the same project over which that contractor was responsible, those additional damages are deemed to be the result of an ‘accident.’” Id. at *14.

The Appellate Court was careful to contrast these so-called “beyond” damages with damages arising out of faulty workmanship, alone. It reiterated that it is well-settled under Illinois law that “there is no occurrence when a [contractor’s] defective workmanship necessitates removing and repairing work.” Id. at *14. This is true even when a contractor’s faulty workmanship results in consequential damages to any other part of the project for which the contractor has responsibility, as it remains part of the contractor’s work product. However, where damages extend beyond the scope of a contractor’s work product, the court concluded that those damages are more properly classified as unforeseeable accidents, and thus “occurrences.”

The Appellate Court found that Precision’s “work product” was limited to the exterior of plaintiffs’ house. Thus, any damage to the interior of the home, as well as to the surrounding land, was outside the scope of Precision’s project. Because plaintiffs had alleged damages “beyond repair and replacement, and beyond damage to other parts of the same project over which [Precision] was responsible,” plaintiffs had satisfactorily alleged “property damage” caused by an “occurrence.” The Appellate Court reversed and remanded in accordance with those findings.

New Jersey Federal Court Provides Clarification/Limitation on the Application of the Continuous Trigger Theory in Construction Defect Cases

Margo Meta and Anthony Miscioscia | White and Williams

The proper trigger of coverage in construction defect disputes has been addressed on several occasions by New Jersey courts. Most notably, in Air Master & Cooling, Inc. v. Selective Insurance Company of America, 452 N.J. Super. 35, 171 A.3d 214 (App. Div. 2017), the New Jersey Appellate Division held that the “last pull” of the continuous trigger in a third-party construction defect claim occurs when the “essential nature and scope of the property damage first becomes known, or when one would have sufficient reason to know of it.” Air Master, 452 N.J. Super. at 38. But at what point does the continuous trigger theory begin? The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey addressed this question in Travelers Lloyds Insurance Company v. Rigid Global Buildings, LLC, No. 18-5814, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25759* (D. N.J. Feb. 13, 2020).

Rigid Global Buildings arose out of a lawsuit brought by Grand Slam, the owner of an indoor tennis facility, for damages caused by multiple instances of water intrusion between 2009, when the facility was built, and 2012, as well as for damages sustained following a partial roof collapse in 2014. One of the contractors named in the lawsuit was Rigid Global Buildings, a manufacturer of pre-engineered metal buildings. Grand Slam alleged that the pre-manufactured metal building provided by Rigid was not up to code, was missing bolts, had loose rod bracing, and had a deflected and deformed frame.

Following oral argument on motions in limine in the underlying construction defect action, the trial court entered an order prohibiting Grand Slam from presenting evidence of any damage due to water intrusion between 2009 and 2011. At trial, the jury found for Grand Slam and a judgment of $1.6 million was entered against Rigid. The $1.6 million verdict included damages associated with the 2014 collapse of the facility, including past and future business losses, as well as damages associated with structural repairs required to bring the building up to code.

Travelers insured Rigid under two consecutive occurrence-based commercial general liability policies, effective from March 1, 2009 to March 1, 2011. Travelers filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Rigid in the underlying construction defect action, and moved for summary judgment on the basis that no property damage occurred during the Travelers policy periods.

The District Court granted Travelers’ motion for summary judgment, finding that Rigid was not entitled to coverage for the claims asserted in the underlying construction defect action under either the traditional (see Hartford Accident & Indem. Co. v. Aetna Life & Casualty Ins. Co., 98 N.J. 18, 27, 483 A.2d 402 (1984) (citing Muller Fuel Oil Co. v. Ins. Co. of N. Am., 95 N.J. Super. 564, 578, 232 A.2d 168 (App. Div. 1967)) (“As a general rule, the time of the ‘occurrence’ of an accident within the meaning of an indemnity policy is not the time the wrongful act was committed but the time when the complaining party was actually damaged.”)) or continuous trigger theories (see Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. United Ins. Co., 138 N.J. 437, 478 650 A.2d 974 (1994) (“when progressive indivisible injury or damage results from exposure to injurious conditions for which civil liability may be imposed, courts may reasonably treat the progressive injury or damage as an occurrence within each of the years of a CGL policy.”))  because there was no evidence that any property damage occurred during the Travelers’ policy periods.

The District Court clarified that property damage must occur before an insured may invoke the continuous trigger theory. Because Grand Slam had been precluded from presenting evidence of property damage between 2009 and 2011 at trial in the underlying construction defect action, there was no proof that any property damage at issue occurred during the Travelers policies and, thus, the continuous trigger theory could not apply to implicate coverage under the Travelers’ policies. The court, in essence, ruled that there cannot be progressive damage during a policy period absent some evidence that there was, in fact, damage.

The court further clarified that, pursuant to Winding Hills Condominium Association, Inc. v. North American Specialty Insurance Company, 332 N.J. Super. 85, 752 A.2d 837 (App. Div. 2000), even if Grand Slam’s assertions that water leaks started as early as 2009 were accepted as true, those assertions could not constitute an occurrence giving rise to a continuous trigger theory of coverage, as Grand Slam had failed to provide any evidence that those leaks contributed to the later damages allocated to Rigid in the underlying construction defect action, and thus, were too tentative to trigger coverage.

Contractor Entitled to Defense for Alleged Faulty Workmanship of Subcontractor

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

    Applying Nevada law, the Federal District Court in Florida found that the general contractor was entitled to a defense of claims based upon alleged faulty workmanship of a subcontractor. KB Home Jacksonville LLC v. Liberty Mutual Fire Ins. Co, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151235 (M.D. Fla. Sept 5, 2019).

    KB Home completed six residential developments utilizing various subcontractors. One subcontractor was Florida State Plastering, LLC (FSP) for installing stucco. Eighty-eight complaints against KB Home implicated FSP’s stucco work. Plaintiffs alleged that the stucco subcontractor’s work suffered from construction defects, causing damages not only to the exterior stucco, but also the underling wire lath, paper backing, house wrap, wood sheathing, interior walls, interior floors and other property. 

    Ironshore insured FSP under a CGL policy. KB Home was an additional insured for liability for property damage caused by “your work.” KB Home was also insured under its own CGL policy with Liberty Mutual. Both insurers refused to defend.

    KB Home filed suit for a declaratory judgment. Liberty Mutual then agreed to defend. Ironshore argued that KB Home was not entitled to partial summary judgment because there were material facts in dispute. The court concluded that the underlying complaints alleged “property damage,” caused by an “occurrence” of FSP’s allegedly faulty workmanship. Further, there were allegations of damage to property other than FSP’s own work. The underlying complaints alleged that FSP’s faulty stucco installation caused damage to paper backing, house wrap, wood sheathing, interior walls and interior floors. 

    Ironshore next argued it still had no duty to defend because Liberty Mutual was providing KB Home a defense. The court disagreed. The presence of multiple insurers did not excuse any single insurer from fully defending the insured. Therefore, KB Home’s motion for partial summary judgment was granted to the extent Ironshore had a duty to defend. 

Insurer’s Attempt to Strike Experts in Collapse Case Fails

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

  The insurer’s efforts to exclude two of the insured’s experts in a collapse case were unsuccessful. Hudon Specialty Ins. Co. v. Talex Enterprises, LLC, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150148 (S.D. Miss. Sept. 4, 2019).

    The insureds’ building collapsed. The remaining portions of the building required immediate stabilization. The insureds hired Mr. Laird, an engineer, to prevent further property destruction. The insured designated Mr. Laird as a non-retained expert for trial. Mr. Laird’s report claimed that the collapse was caused because the building had been re-roofed many times without removal of the degraded underlying roofing materials, thereby adding additional weight to the roof structure. 

    The insureds also designated Steve Cox as a non-retained expert. Mr. Cox was an architect who owned property neighboring the building that collapsed. He opined that the building collapsed because of the condition of very old mortar and not because of water standing on the building roof or because of roof repairs. 

    Hudson sought to strike these two experts because their opinions were inconsistent with the admitted facts. A document produced by the insureds stated that a large amount of rainwater had collected on the roof and the weight of the rainfall was the proximate cause of the collapse. Hudson claimed that this statement qualified as a judicial admission, removing the question of causation from contention. The court disagreed that the statement was a judicial admission because it did not form any part of the pleadings. The statement may have been an evidentiary admission that could be controverted or explained by the parties. 

    Hudson also argued that neither expert testified that the mortar decay which alleged caused the collapse was not plainly visible. Therefore, the testimony could not be relevant because the building decay had to hidden from view to trigger the policy. But the determination of whether the policy was triggered would be based on testimony and cross-examination.

    Hudson also sought to strike Mr. Laird because he had been retained to insist the insureds to preserve the property before suit was ever filed. The mere fact that he was retained to provide expert testimony did not make him a “specially employed expert” who was solely retained to provide testimony at trial and was not involved in other ways in the case. Mr. Laird would testify as to the opinion he formed during his employment by the insureds as he worked to stabilize the building. Therefore, he was correctly designated as a non-retained expert.

    Therefore, the expert opinions put forth by the insureds satisfied the Daubert standard and were both relevant and reliable.