Arnanda M. Leffler and Anastasia J. Wade | Brouse McDowell | February 10, 2019
On October 9, 2018, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Ohio Northern Univ. v. Charles Constr. Servs., 2018-Ohio-4057, holding that a general contractor was not entitled to insurance coverage for its subcontractor’s faulty work. Since then, some commentators have described the Court’s holding as eliminating all insurance coverage for claims involving defective construction. Such a broad reading is not warranted. Still, Ohio’s insureds would be wise to consider purchasing an endorsement that is readily available in today’s insurance market.
Coverage for Construction Defect Claims Nationally
For years, courts around the country have grappled with coverage for claims involving defective or faulty construction. These cases generally turn on whether the court determines that defective construction is an “occurrence.” An “occurrence” is defined as an accident, including continued or repeated exposure to harmful conditions. In practice, faulty work is almost always an accident as that word is commonly understood—contractor-insureds rarely, if ever, intend or expect to cause injury to persons or property, including their own work. Thus, the industry has long understood that insurance policies will generally provide at least some coverage for damage arising from defective work, subject to policy exclusions that bar coverage for the actual repair or replacement of an insured’s faulty work. Insurers, however, argue that defective work is a non-accidental “business risk” that is not an “occurrence” covered by the policy. Since 2012, almost all courts that have considered the issue have held that defective construction is an “occurrence” and, thus, it is covered by the policy, at least to the extent that work other than the insured’s work is damaged. See Black & Veatch Corp. v. Aspen Ins. (Uk) Ltd, 882 F.3d 952, 966 (10th Cir.2018) (citation omitted).
Ohio’s Position: Westfield Ins. Co. v. Custom Agri Sys., Inc.
In 2012, the Ohio Supreme Court decided Westfield Ins. Co. v. Custom Agri Sys., Inc., 2012-Ohio-4712, holding that claims for the cost to repair an insured’s defective work are not covered because they “are not claims for ‘property damage’ caused by an ‘occurrence’ under a commercial general liability [CGL] policy.” In its decision, however, the Court cited and approved of prior Ohio case law which held that consequential damages arising from a policyholder’s defective work generally are covered by CGL policies. Since Custom Agri, insurance practitioners and courts in Ohio have generally agreed that:
- Repair and replacement of a policyholder’s defective work is not “property damage caused by an occurrence” and is not covered by standard CGL policies; and
- Consequential damages to property other than the policyholder’s work is “property damage caused by an occurrence” and may be covered by a standard CGL policy depending upon the applicability of the policy’s exclusions and conditions.
Notably, however, the Custom Agri Court did not address whether a typical CGL policy would provide coverage for the repair or replacement of defective work performed by the policyholder’s subcontractors. The Court addressed this issue in Ohio Northern.
Coverage for Subcontractor Work: Ohio Northern
In 2008, Ohio Northern contracted with Charles Construction Services (CCS) to construct a hotel and conference center. After CCS and its subcontractors completed the work, Ohio Northern discovered significant issues with the work and brought suit against CCS. CCS tendered the claim to its insurer, Cincinnati Insurance Company, which argued that it had no coverage obligations under Custom Agri. In response, CCS argued that Custom Agri was inapplicable because subcontractors performed almost all of the work at issue, not CCS.
The trial court granted summary judgment to Cincinnati, but the Third District Court of Appeals reversed. In finding in favor of CCS, the appellate court analyzed certain policy exclusions that expressly preserved coverage for damaged work or damages arising from faulty work if: (1) a subcontractor performed the work; and, (2) the damage occurred after project completion. Cincinnati then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which accepted the following proposition of law for review:
[Custom Agri] remains applicable to claims of defective construction or workmanship by a subcontractor included within the “products-completed operations hazard” of [a] commercial general liability policy.
Thus, the question before the Court was whether Custom Agri applies to claims involving a subcontractor’s faulty work. In its decision, the Court concluded that Custom Agri does apply to such claims.
The Court acknowledged that its decision went against the weight of authority from its sister-courts nationally, but nonetheless applied Custom Agri to hold that “property damage caused by a subcontractor’s faulty work is not fortuitous and does not meet the definition of ‘occurrence’ under a CGL policy.” The Court failed to address several arguments, including: (1) that this interpretation rendered meaningless the carve-back for subcontractor work in the Your Work exclusion; (2) that the drafting history of the exclusions confirmed that the insurers themselves intended to provide coverage for subcontractor defective work; and, (3) that the meaning of “occurrence” used in Custom Agri contradicted the long-standing meaning given to the word in every other context. Instead, the Court suggested that the Ohio General Assembly could address the issue by requiring that all policies issued in Ohio define “occurrence” to include defective workmanship. Of course, this suggestion brings little comfort to the contractor-insureds that paid substantial sums for “completed operations” endorsements that were intended to provide coverage for these claims in the first place.
What’s Next for Ohio’s Construction Insureds?
Many commentators have written that the decision in Ohio Northern eliminates all coverage for construction defect claims. Taken to its logical conclusion, the absurdity of this argument is evident. Suppose an insured incorrectly affixes materials to the façade of a building, resulting in falling masonry that strikes and kills an innocent bystander. Or, suppose an insured incorrectly installs wiring during construction, resulting in a fire that destroys both the project and surrounding homes. Would any insurer even argue that there is no coverage for such claims?
The Court’s opinion in Ohio Northern cannot be read so broadly. The Court answered a narrow question: does Custom Agri apply to subcontractor work? The answer, according to the Court, is yes. But, Custom Agri held that, while there is no coverage for the repair or replacement of a policyholder’s defective work, there is coverage for consequential damages arising from that defective work. While at times the Court’s language in Ohio Northern is imprecise, the Court makes clear over and again that it is simply applying its precedent, Custom Agri. Notably, the Custom Agri Court relied upon multiple cases previously decided by Ohio courts holding that consequential damages arising from defective construction are covered occurrences. Had the Ohio Northern Court intended to overrule this prior precedent, cited in Custom Agri, it easily could have stated its intention to do so. The Court’s silence on these cases means they are still applicable to Ohio policyholders. Thus, consequential damages arising from defective construction should still be covered under CGL policies.
In fact, even Cincinnati recently confirmed that the Court’s opinion cannot be read so broadly as to eliminate coverage for consequential damages. In its response to a motion to reconsider filed by Ohio Northern, Cincinnati stated that the opinion “correctly recognizes that consequential damages, when they exist, may be covered.” For example, Cincinnati acknowledged that a subcontractor’s CGL coverage would apply at least “where a subcontractor damages part of a construction project that is not within its subcontract.” According to Cincinnati, the Court found no coverage for the consequential damages at issue in Ohio Northern because CCS was a general contractor and all of the damage to the project was CCS’s “work.”
An Ounce of Prevention…
While coverage firms like Brouse McDowell can and should continue to advocate for coverage for consequential damages, Ohio’s contractors should nonetheless consider purchasing additional coverage, particularly if they are acting as a general contractor. Numerous insurers now offer endorsements that reinstate the coverage that the Ohio Northern decision arguably eliminated. For example, some insurers amend their insuring agreement to specifically cover property damage to an insured’s work if it is performed by a subcontractor and falls within the products-completed operations hazard. Other insurers “deem” that property damage to the insured’s work is caused by an occurrence if it is unexpected and unintended. Yet other insurers amend the definition of “occurrence” to include “subcontracted property work damage.”
There may be material differences in how these various forms operate and the extent of coverage they provide, which is a subject that is beyond the scope of this article. Policyholders in Ohio should contact their brokers to discuss the options available to them and, if appropriate, should contact coverage counsel to discuss how the various, differing forms would operate. For their part, owners and developers should amend their construction contracts to compel contractors to purchase such endorsements.
Insureds and sophisticated brokers will understandably question why they and their clients must pay higher premiums to purchase endorsements to protect themselves from claims that the insurers intended would be covered by the existing CGL form. Nonetheless, here, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and construction industry participants should contact their brokers and counsel today.