David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates | May 3, 2019
When it comes to liability insurance, an insurer’s duty to defend its insured from a third-party claim is much broader than its duty to indemnify. This broad duty to defend an insured is very important and, as an insured, you need to know this. “A liability insurer’s obligation, with respect to its duty to defend, is not determined by the insured’s actual liability but rather by whether the alleged basis of the action against the insurer falls within the policy’s coverage.” Advanced Systems, Inc. v. Gotham Ins. Co., 44 Fla. L. Weekly D996b (Fla. 3d DCA 2019) (internal quotation omitted). This means:
Even where the complaint alleges facts partially within and partially outside the coverage of a policy, the insurer is nonetheless obligated to defend the entire suit, even if the facts later demonstrate that no coverage actually exists. And, the insurer must defend even if the allegations in the complaint are factually incorrect or meritless. As such, an insurer is obligated to defend a claim even if it is uncertain whether coverage exists under the policy. Furthermore, once a court finds that there is a duty to defend, the duty will continue even though it is ultimately determined that the alleged cause of action is groundless and no liability is found within the policy provisions defining coverage.
Advanced Systems, supra(internal citations and quotations omitted).
In Advanced Systems, an insurer refused to defend its insured, a fire protection subcontractor. The subcontractor had been third-partied into a construction defect lawsuit because the foam fire suppression system it installed had a failure resulting in the premature discharge of foam. The owner sued the general contractor and the general contractor third-partied in the subcontractor. However, the subcontractor’s CGL carrier refused its duty to defend the subcontractor from the third-party complaint because of the pollution exclusion in the CGL policy. In other words, the insurer claimed that the foam the subcontractor installed constituted a pollutant within the meaning of the exclusion and, therefore, resulted in no coverage and, thus, no duty to defend the insured in the action.
To determine the foam was a “pollutant”–which the policy defined as any “solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste”—the insurer relied on extrinsic evidence, specifically the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS Sheet) for the foam. The insured objected to the insurer’s reliance on extrinsic evidence since it was beyond the scope of the insurer’s duty to defend which should be based on the allegations in the underlying complaint. (The insurer tried to support its reliance on extrinsic evidence under a very limited exception that supports the reliance on extrinsic facts to form the refusal to defend when the extrinsic facts are uncontroverted and manifestly obvious, not normally alleged in the complaint, and that place the claim outside of coverage. However, this is a very narrow exception that the court was not going to apply here.)
It is important to consult with counsel if you have an issue with your insurer refusing to defend you in an underlying action and/or your insurer denies coverage.