Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii | January 22, 2018
Although the court concluded that the policy covered a loss caused by the weight of snow, disputed facts as to the cause of the collapse led to the denial of cross-motions for summary judgment. Freeway Drive Inv., LLC v Employers Mut. Cas. Co., 2017 U.S Dist. LEXIS 207165 (E.D Mich. Dec. 18, 2017).
Freeway Drive owned a single story commercial building insured by Employers Mutual Casualty Company (EMCC). The building sustained damage when trusses within the roof shifted and dropped, causing visible sagging. EMCC denied Freeway Drive’s claim.
Freeway Drive hired structural engineer Abdul Brinjikji to inspect the damage. He visited the building three times. On the first visit, he saw snow on the roof but could not estimate how much. Nevertheless, he opined that the collapse was caused by an overload of snow. He developed a plan to shore up the roof and repairs commenced.
After repairs were completed, Brinjikji visited the property a second time. He sill opined that the collapse was caused by snow load. His opinion did not change after this third visit.
EMCC retained an engineer, Richard Hamann, who also investigated the cause of the collapse. After the inspection, EMCC stated in a letter to Freeway Drive that the damage to the roof trusses was a result of fire retardant applied to the roofing structure when it was built. Over time, the fire retardant, along with moisture in the attic, resulted in structural failure of the trusses. EMCC concluded that the loss did not fall within the policy’s collapse coverage, that the damage was not caused by a “specified cause of loss” as defined by the policy, and that the loss was subject to the policy’s collapse exclusion.
After receiving EMCC’s denial letter, Freeway Drive tested a sample of the truss lumber for the presence of fire retardant. The test indicated the presence of small amounts of Boron, which was one of three major fire retardant tracer elements. But the amount of total fire retardant that permeated into the wood was minimal. Brinjikji later testified that Boron did not affect wood like earlier used fire retardants in older buildings did.
Freeway Drive sued EMCC and cross-motions for summary judgment were filed. The court first determined that the policy was “all-risk,” meaning the loss was covered unless the particular damage was specifically excluded.
Next, the court noted that “weight of snow” was a specified cause of loss” under the policy. While EMCC did not dispute that damage caused by weight of snow was covered under the policy, it contended that the plain language of the “Collapse Exclusion” barred coverage for collapse due only to the weight of snow. EMCC said that coverage could only be extended if a snow-load collapse occurred after construction, remodeling, or renovation was complete, and because of the use of defective materials or methods.
The court disagreed with EMCC’s attempt to limit the analysis to the “Additional Coverage – Collapse” provision of the policy. Although collapse was excluded from the policy, the exclusion did not apply if coverage was provided under the Additional Coverage-Collapse provision or if the collapse was caused by a “specified cause of loss.”
EMCC argued that the collapse exclusion exception had to be read in harmony with the Additional Coverage – Collapse provision. Interpreting the policy to provide collapse coverage for collapse solely due to a specified cause of loss rendered as surplusage the unambiguous language of the Additional Coverage-Collapse provision.
Freeway Drive argued that the plain language provided that collapse coverage was restored under the exclusion when the collapse was due to the weight of snow. The Additional Coverage – Collapse clause and the “specified causes of loss” provision were distinct exceptions to the collapse exclusion that had to be applied separately.
The court agreed with Freeway Drive. The policy provided coverage for collapse due only to a “specified cause of loss,” i.e., the weight of snow, regardless of the Additional Coverage – Collapse provision.
Nevertheless, the experts disagreed on the cause of the loss, creating a factual dispute as to whether the weight of snow, or deterioration due to fire retardant, caused the collapse. Hamann said that further testing was needed on the roof trusses. In the first test, traces of fire retardant were found. Brinjikji could not say for certain that the conditions in which the retardant could have affected the trusses did not occur. Neither party could demonstrate the absence of a dispute of material fact that either the weight of snow, degradation, or both, caused the loss. Therefore, summary judgment could not be granted to either party.