Your CGL Policy May Cover More Than You Think – Damages “because of’ Property Damage or Bodily Injury for Construction Projects

Stella Szantova Giordano | Saxe Doernberger & Vita

Construction projects are susceptible to injuries and property damage – which is why the stakeholders involved rely heavily on commercial general liability (“CGL”) insurance policies when such losses occur. While many insureds are familiar with pursuing insurance coverage for bodily injury and property damage, a CGL policy can also cover certain consequential damages if they can be characterized as damages “because of” property damage or bodily injury.

Imagine the following scenario: An employee falls from scaffolding at the project site. OSHA shuts down the site for investigation of safety issues, and no trades are allowed to return to work for a month. Because of this, the project schedule falls behind, and the owner and the GC suffer extensive delay damages. The question is: can these (and similar) consequential damages be covered as “because of” damages under a CGL policy.

How does “because of” coverage work?

The key language to access the “because of” damages coverage is in the insuring agreement of every CGL policy written on the post-1973 ISO coverage form CG 00 01. Section I.A(1) reads:

(a) We will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of “bodily injury” or “property damage” to which this insurance applies.2

Because the highlighted phrase can be interpreted very broadly, many courts have concluded that a CGL policy covers certain damages flowing from a bodily injury and property damage if the following is true: 1) there is a bodily injury or property damage for which the CGL policy provides coverage; 2) the sought damages were incurred “because of” such bodily injury or property damage; and 3) the connection between the bodily injury or property damage and the “because of” damages sought is not too attenuated.3

As for the third element, any degree of “but for” causation can be construed to provide coverage, since “because of” damages can (and very often are) far broader than property damage or bodily injury itself. Exactly how closely related the losses for which coverage is sought must be related to the underlying bodily injury or property damage will vary from case to case, but a good rule of thumb is the closer related to the underlying bodily injury or property damage, the better.

What types of damages can be covered?

Theoretically, any damages which can be described as damages “because of” bodily injury or property damage could be covered. However, case law on this type of coverage is limited so a creative argument, matching your particular circumstances, may be needed. Courts found “because of” coverage for these types of damages stemming from underlying property damage: 1) delay costs (California, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin); 2) liquidated damages (Texas and Pennsylvania); and 3) diminution of value (Missouri and Texas).

Delay Costs. If construction is halted and delayed “because of” property damage, associated costs can be very expensive. Examples of covered losses include: a 131-day delay in completion of a California residential project because of water intrusion property damage4; and delay costs associated with re-engineering and rip-and-tear damages stemming from a subcontractor’s failure to construct concrete piles to their required strength in Washington.5

Liquidated Damages. Because liquidated damages are considered to be contract-based, obtaining coverage for them under the “because of” theory can be more difficult. The key distinction is whether the damages are a result of the insured’s negligence (in which case they are covered), or whether the damages arise from a contractual obligation (in which case they are not). A federal court applying Texas law allowed coverage for liquidated damages of $5,400 per day resulting from damage to an oil pipeline.6 A court in Pennsylvania found that liquidated damages “because of” a subcontractor accidentally cutting structural parts of a bridge were covered.7 Finally, a Tennessee court explained that if the insurers wanted to protect themselves from coverage for liquidated damages as “because of” damages, they could specifically endorse their policies to exclude liquidated damages.8

Diminution of Value. In and of itself, diminution in value is a purely economic loss not considered property damage. However, if it stems from underlying property damage, “because of” coverage is available. One court, applying Missouri law, allowed “because of” coverage to a supermarket for diminution in value to its building because of improperly installed and cracking terrazzo floor.9 Another court in Texas allowed coverage for diminution in value caused by water leakage from developer-made lakes to individual homes.10

NOTE: Many states also allow coverage for ensuing damage arising out of defective construction. While some cases characterize this as “because of” coverage, seeking defective construction coverage usually involves a different analysis which is beyond the scope of this article.11

Damages “because of” bodily inury may be more limited

Very few cases address coverage for consequential damages “because of” bodily injury on a construction project, but the argument should be the same as with damages flowing from property damage. One notable New York case allowed “because of” damages coverage for a project owner whose employees slipped and fell on water which came from an improperly installed (and leaking) roof.12 In addition, cases from non-construction settings can be used as guidance when seeking damages “because of” bodily injury. For example, a Maryland case allowed compensatory damages (including purchase of a cell phone head set) to individuals injured by cell phones emitting dangerous levels of radiation.13 In any case, the argument that damages “because of” bodily injury (such as the delay costs in the hypothetical scenario mentioned earlier) should be covered by a CGL policy is often worth making.

Conclusion

If you find yourself faced with consequential damages on a construction project caused by property damage or bodily injury, you should consider whether the “because of” argument could get you additional recovery under a CGL policy. Coverage counsel can help you evaluate whether damages such as delay in completion, repair costs, liquidated damages or diminution in value could be covered.

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

Clifford J. Shapiro | National Law Review

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. 

Understanding ‘Occurrence’ Under the CGL Policy

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.

The Important ‘Your Work’ Exclusion

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.

Illinois Courts Get It Wrong

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. 

COVID-19 Is Not Direct Physical Loss Or Damage

Joseph Blyskal, Dennis Brown and Michelle Bernard | Insurance Coverage Law Blog

Is a cash register that is not being used damaged property? When you need to wash a table, a chair, or a section of flooring with readily available cleaning products to make them safe and useable, are you repairing damaged property? Is a spilled cup of coffee waiting to be wiped up actual damage to the premises? If your customers stay home to help stop the spread of a virus, has there been a physical loss inside your shuttered store or restaurant?

The insuring agreements typically found in commercial property insurance policies require “direct physical loss of or damage to” covered property as the triggering event. Without establishing direct physical loss or damage a policyholder cannot meet its burden to trigger coverage for a purely economic loss of business income resulting from shuttering its business due to concerns over exposure to—or even the actual presence of—COVID-19. Despite this well-understood policy language, it is already beyond question that insurers will confront creative—albeit strained—arguments from policyholder firms attempting to trigger coverage for pure economic loss. The scope of the human and economic tragedy we all face will be matched by the scope of the effort to force the financial harm onto insurance companies.

The plaintiffs in what appears to be the first-filed case seeking a declaratory judgment in the context of first-party insurance coverage rely on the assertion that “contamination of the insured premises by the Coronavirus would be a direct physical loss needing remediation to clean the surfaces” of its establishment, a New Orleans restaurant, to trigger coverage for business interruption.[1] See Cajun Conti, LLC, et. al. v. Certain Underwriters at Lloyd’s, London, et. al. Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans, State of Louisiana. The complaint alleges that the property is insured under an “all risk policy” defining “covered causes of loss” as “direct physical loss.” The plaintiffs rely on the alleged presence of the virus on “the surface of objects” in certain conditions and the need to clean those surfaces. They go so far as to claim that “[a]ny effort by [the insurer] to deny the reality that the virus causes physical damage and loss would constitute a false and potentially fraudulent misrepresentation. . . .”

The complaint cites a case from the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Widder v. Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation, 82 So. 3d 294 (La. App. 2011), writ denied, 76 So. 3d 1179 (La. 2011), for the proposition that “[s]imilar to the Coronavirus, Louisiana Courts have interpreted that the intrusion of lead or gaseous fumes constitute a direct physical loss under insurance policies that would need to be remediated.”

The assertion of fraudulent misrepresentation seems to be largely a matter of projection, as the truth seems to have been stretched by the claims that the possible presence of an easily cleaned virus damaged the restaurant sufficiently to trigger coverage for business interruption at the plaintiffs’ restaurant. As an initial matter, Widder involved a house contaminated with “inorganic lead which makes it uninhabitable until it has been gutted and remediated.” 82 So. 3d 294, 296. Gutting and remediating a home to remove materials which must be treated as hazardous waste is a far cry from cleaning property with disinfectant. In Widder an inspection revealed the presence of lead dust on walls, which originated in part from lead paint outside of the house. Id. at 295. Apparently without any scientific foundation, the Widder court compared the loss before it to the emission of gaseous fumes from Chinese drywall and reversed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the insurer.

Glaringly, the alleged presence of a virus on objects is not analogous to noxious odors or gaseous releases. In Widder the alleged physical harm involved tangible damage. Further, gaseous emissions from Chinese drywall corroded building components and in some instances required demolition and rebuilding of entire physical structures to remediate the condition. The proposition that the alleged presence of Coronavirus is somehow analogous to this type of harm is, at best, a contrived argument to attempt to trigger coverage. Indeed, whether and to what extent Coronavirus stays present on physical surfaces is as yet untested under Daubert. We do know that government health officials believe that proper cleaning with standard disinfectants will kill the virus. In any event, there is no indication or evidence that the virus corrodes physical surfaces.

Courts in other jurisdictions have addressed more analogous circumstances and found a lack of coverage. For instance, a federal district court applying Michigan law found that the presence of mold and bacteria in ductwork and a resulting odor did not constitute direct physical harm despite that the ductwork needed to be physically cleaned as part of remediation. Universal Image Productions, Inc. v. Chubb Corp., 703 F. Supp. 2d 705 (E.D. Mich. 2010). A water leak caused the mold, bacteria, and odor, and the policyholder argued that the “pervasive odor, mold and bacterial contamination (both visual and aerosolized), as well as water damage” constituted direct physical loss. The court concluded that the policyholder did not demonstrate “that it suffered any structural or any other tangible damage to the insured property. Rather, the bulk of [the policyholder’s] argument relies upon proof that it suffered such intangible harms as strong odors and the presence of mold and/or bacteria in the air and ventilation system within its Building which, in its judgment, rendered the insured premises useless.” Id. at 719. Citing a case from Oregon, the court stated that “even physical damage that occurs at the molecular or microscopic level must be ‘distinct and demonstrable.’” Id. (citing Columbiaknit, Inc. v. Affiliated FM Ins. Co., No. Civil No. 98-434-HU 1999, U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11873 (D. Or. Aug. 4, 1999)).

At least two courts—a federal court in Florida and an appellate court in Ohio—have recognized that if the alleged physical harm can be cleaned, then there is no physical harm. Mama Jo’s, Inc. v. Sparta Ins. Co., No. 17-CV-23362-KMM, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 201852 (S.D. Fla. June 11, 2018) (debris and dust from road work required the insured to clean its floors, walls, tables, chairs, and countertops and the court held that “cleaning is not considered direct physical loss.”); Mastellone v. Lightning Rod Mut. Ins. Co., 884 N.E.2d 1130 (Ohio 2008) (affirming lower court’s ruling that dark staining from mold did not constitute “physical loss” where plaintiff’s expert testified that mold could be removed from wood surface by cleaning).

Further, the mere risk of contamination has been deemed insufficient to trigger coverage. Specifically, loss of income due to an embargo by the United States Department of Agriculture because of the risk that “mad cow disease” contaminated beef product was not “direct physical loss” to beef product. Source Food Tech., Inc. v. United States Fid. & Guar. Co., 465 F.3d 834 (8th Cir. 2006) (applying Minnesota law). The Eighth Circuit distinguished between the actual presence of contamination and the inability to sell a product because of the fear of contamination. “Although Source Food’s beef product in the truck could not be transported to the United States due to the closing of the border to Canadian beef products, the beef product on the truck was not—as Source Foods concedes—physically contaminated or damaged in any manner. To characterize Source Food’s inability to transport its truckload of beef product across the border and sell the beef product in the United States as direct physical loss to property would render the word ‘physical’ meaningless.” Id. at 838.

As of this writing the insurers had not yet moved to dismiss the Cajun Conti complaint. However, we believe that on the face of the complaint, which expressly incorporates the policy language requiring direct physical loss or damage, there is no triggering event. Even assuming that COVID-19 is, at a molecular level, present on physical surfaces, we also believe that disinfecting of surfaces does not constitute physical harm sufficient to trigger coverage.

Gordon & Rees is carefully tracking the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and working to assist clients with the evolving legal ramifications of the outbreak to their businesses.

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.