South Carolina Federal Court Finds No Coverage for Faulty Workmanship Damages Discovered Years After Occurrence-Based Policy Expiration

Roben West | PropertyCasualtyFocus

Potential Six-Year Delay in Notice of Flood and Mold Damage “Substantially Prejudiced” Insurer

In Atain Specialty Insurance Company v. Carolina Professional Builders, LLC et al., 2:18-cv-2352-BHH (D.S.C. Oct. 2, 2020), a federal judge in South Carolina granted summary judgment to an insurer after finding that the record clearly supported that although flood and mold damages may have occurred during the policy period, that damage was distinct from the damage being complained about now, which occurred and was discovered years after the policy period. And, if the previous water and mold damage was the subject of the underlying lawsuit, the insured’s failure to provide notice for six years “substantially prejudiced” insurer.

Atain Specialty, an insurer-initiated coverage action, stemmed from an underlying suit by a homeowner against a builder on various grounds for faulty workmanship following water and mold damage to a home from extensive and mysterious leaking. The subject policy—a standard commercial general liability policy—insured property damage caused by an occurrence during the policy period, which was from 2009 to 2010. However, the policy also excluded coverage for property damage that was first discovered after the expiration of the policy.

Issues arose when the insurer, homeowner, and builder disagreed on when the property damage occurred. The insurer contended that the damage occurred several years after the policy expired, while both the builder and homeowner argued that the damage first occurred in 2009, during the policy period. The court turned to the record to resolve the dispute based not on when the damage occurred, but rather on when the damage was discovered.

Specifically, the court looked to the homeowner’s pleadings, discovery responses, and deposition testimony in the underlying lawsuit against the builder, all of which established that the damage was not discovered until shortly before the underlying lawsuit was filed in 2015. Because the court found the record was flooded with evidence that the damage was not discovered until 2014 or 2015—several years after the expiration of the policy—the court applied the exclusion barring coverage for damage discovered outside of the policy period. This exclusion was found to be “unambiguous and subject to only one interpretation.”

The court pointed out another concern with the homeowner and builder’s argument that the property damage occurred in 2009, during the policy period: timeliness. Even if there was a genuine dispute as to whether the damage occurred and was discovered in 2009 as opposed to 2014 or 2015, the builder’s notice to the insurer would have been untimely and substantially prejudicial and thus, the court would have found that the underlying lawsuit would not be covered under the policy in any event.

Michigan Supreme Court Finds Faulty Subcontractor Work That Damages Insured’s Work Product May Constitute an “Occurrence” Under CGL Policy

Jason Taylor | Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry

In Skanska USA Bldg. Inc. v. M.A.P. Mech. Contractors, Inc., 2020 WL 3527909 (Mich. June 29, 2020), the Michigan Supreme Court addressed whether unintentionally faulty subcontractor work that damages an insured’s work product constitutes an “accident” under a commercial general liability insurance policy. In aligning itself with a growing number of jurisdictions, the Michigan Supreme Court answered, “yes.” In Skanska, a construction manager brought an action against a commercial general liability (CGL) insurer seeking coverage as additional insured for the cost of repairs to correct faulty work performed by its subcontractor in renovation of medical center. In 2009, the construction manager hired MAP to install a steam boiler and related piping for the medical center’s heating system. MAP’s installation included several expansion joints, which it was later discovered, were installed backward. Significant damage to concrete, steel, and the heating system occurred as a result. The construction manager performed the work of repairing and replacing the damaged property to the tune of $1.4 million, and submitted a claim to MAP’s CGL insurer, Amerisure, seeking coverage as an additional insured.

Amerisure denied the claim contending that MAP’s defective construction was not a covered “occurrence” within the CGL policy. The policy defined “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions,” but did not define the term “accident.” The trial court looked to the Court of Appeal’s decision in Hawkeye-Sec. Ins. Co. v. Vector Const. Co., 185 Mich. App. 369 (1990), which defined “accident” as “…a result which is not anticipated and…takes place without the insured’s foresight or expectation and without design or intentional causation on his part.” But, again citing Hawkeye, the trial court concluded that “[d]efective workmanship, standing alone, is not an occurrence within the meaning of a[ ] general liability insurance contract[;] an occurrence exists where the insured’s faulty work product damages the property of another.”

The trial court held that an “occurrence” may have happened because the damage caused by MAP’s defective installation of the expansion joints may have gone beyond the scope of the work required by the contract between the plaintiff and the medical center. On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and ordered that summary disposition be granted to Amerisure reasoning that there was no “occurrence” under the CGL policy because the only damage was to the insured’s own work product.

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed again holding that faulty work by a subcontractor may fall within the plain meaning of an “occurrence,” or “accident.” The Michigan Supreme Court rejected the carrier’s argument that faulty workmanship to the insured’s product was not an “occurrence” because it lacked “fortuity.” According to the court, fortuity is one way to show that an incident is an accident, but it is not the only way. Rather, appropriate focus of the term “accident” must be on both the injury-causing act or event and its relation to the resulting property damage or injury, which must be analyzed from the subjective standpoint of the insured. Thus, even if an insured acts intentionally, the act may still be an “accident” under policy so long as the injury or damage was not specifically intended by the insured. The Michigan Supreme Court also noted that the policy did not limit the definition of “occurrence” by reference to the owner of the damaged property, which might otherwise preclude a finding of an “occurrence” for damage to the insured’s own work product.

The court, referencing other similar rulings in other jurisdictions, resorted to its reading the contract as a whole to confirm its conclusion. For example, the court reasoned that the policy contained an exclusion precluding coverage for damage to an insured’s own work product (the “Your Work” exclusion), but that the exclusion contains an exception for work performed by a subcontractor on the insured’s behalf. Thus, “[i]f faulty workmanship by a subcontractor could never constitute an ‘accident’ and therefore never be an ‘occurrence’ triggering coverage in the first place, the subcontractor exception would be nugatory.” Skanska, 2020 WL 3527909 at *6 (citing cases). Put another way, if the insuring agreement does not confer an initial grant of coverage for injury or damage to the insured’s own faulty work, then there would be no reason for the “your work” exclusion (and the subcontractor exception).

The Skanska Court also reviewed the context and history of CGL policies, including policy language changes from the 1973 policy forms to those adopted in 1986 in support of its conclusion that an “accident” may include damage to an insured’s own work product, and referred to cases holding otherwise as an “outdated view” of the insurance industry. While this history is interesting, it is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, the Michigan Supreme Court found that “the 1986 reformation of the scope of coverage under the CGL policies underscored a plain reading of “accident”—that faulty subcontractor work may fall within the policy’s coverage. Id. at *10.

In sum, the Michigan Supreme Court’s holding in Skanska aligned Michigan with the growing body of jurisdiction to hold that an “accident” may include unintentionally faulty subcontractor work that damages an insured’s work product. Of course, the next logical inquiry is whether one or more of the CGL policy’s “business risk” exclusion might apply. (Notably, the Court did not address application of the “your work” policy exclusion. Specifically, Amerisure argued that because MAP was a named insured under the CGL policy, the subcontractor exception to the “your work” exclusion did not apply, and the exclusion barred coverage. The Court merely remanded this question, among others, to the Court of Appeals to address, depending on whether it determines they are properly presented and preserved for its review.)

Coverage for Faulty Workmanship Denied

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

    The court found that the insurer had no duty to defend claims against the insured for faulty workmanship. HT Services, LLC v. Western Heritage Ins. Co., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123664 (D. Colo. July 10, 2020). 

     Western Heritage Insurance Company issued three concurrent general liability policies to HT Services, LLC. The policies insured two properties owned by HT in Colorado Springs, its offices and vacant land. HT eventually developed a residential community on the vacant land. In January 2016, the homeowners’ association filed suit against HT for negligent design and construction of a retaining wall at the project. 

    HT requested Western to defend and indemnify against the suit. Western denied coverage and HT sued. HT asserted that Western had a duty to defend and asserted claims for declaratory relief, breach of contract and bad faith. HT moved for partial summary judgment on its claims for declaratory relief, seeking a determination of its rights under the policies. Western moved for summary judgment on all of HT’s claims. 

    The court found were was no reasonable interpretation of the AOAO’s complaint that would require coverage under the policies. The underlying complaint alleged that HT “defectively designed and/or constructed retaining walls” during the development and “breached the duties owed to the AOAO by negligently, carelessly, tortiously, and wrongfully failng to use reasonable care in the design and/or construction of the improvements.” These allegations fell within several exclusions in the policies. 

    First the policies excluded from coverage claims or suits for work on condominiums or any other type of residential structure. A retaining wall was not itself a “residential structure.” But the exclusion applied to activities “relating to or in any way connected with” the construction of residential structures. The retaining wall was constructed as part of the development and fit within the exclusion. 

    Second, another exclusion provided, “This insurance does not apply to ‘property damage’ to that particular part of any property that must be restored, repaired or replaced because ‘your work’ was incorrectly performed on it.” Under Colorado law, this provision did not require an insurer to defend its insured in a suit for damages to repair mistakes made in construction of the project. There was no plausible reading of the underlying complaint that would trigger coverage.

No Coverage for Counterclaim Arising from Insured’s Faulty Workmanship

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

    The Eighth Circuit found there was no coverage for the insured’s faulty workmanship. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., S.I. v. Mid-American Grain Distributors, LLC, 958 F.3d 748 (8th Cir. 2020).

    Mid-American contracted with Lehenbauer to design and construct a grain storage and distribution facility for Lehenbauer. Before the work was competed, Lehenbauer terminated Mid-American’s services. Mid-American then sued Lehenbauer for breach of contract. Lehenbauer counterclaimed against Mid-American, alleged breach of “implied duties of workmanlike performance and fitness for a particular purpose” and negligence. Mid-American tendered the counterclaim to American Family. American Family accepted the tender under a reservation of rights, but sued Mid-American for a declaratory judgment.

    The district court granted American Family’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the counterclaims did not allege an occurrence. 

    On appeal, the Eighth Circuit noted that under Missouri law, an “accident” did not include acts that resulted in expected or foreseeable damage. But must the accident be foreseeable to the actual insured, subjectively speaking, or to a reasonable insured, objectively speaking? Here, foreseeability could be inferred as a matter of law given the nature of the act and they type of damages at issue even under the subjective standard.

    The damages in question were the inherent results of shoddy workmanship. Therefore, Mid-American’s alleged defective construction work was not an “occurrence.” Lehenbauer’s damages were the normal, expected consequence of Mid-American’s work. They were foreseeable as a matter of law, so Mid-American’s work was not an “accident,” and thus not an “occurrence.” The district court decision was affirmed.

Michigan Supreme Court Holds a Contractor’s Defective Work Is an ‘Occurrence’

Scott R. Murphy and Anthony C. Sallah | Barnes & Thornburg

In Skanska USA Building v M.A.P Mechanical Contractors, Inc., Docket No. 159510, ____ Mich ____, 2020 WL 3527909, the Michigan Supreme Court found that a subcontractor’s inadvertent faulty work may constitute an “accident” under Michigan law, and therefore constitute an accidental “occurrence” under current standard form commercial general liability (CGL) policy. This landmark decision on July 29, 2020 changes the law in Michigan, and reverses many years of lower court rulings that denied coverage for Michigan contractors on the ground that inadvertent construction defects do not constitute an accidental occurrence under the CGL policy.

Skanska served as a construction manager on a hospital renovation project involving the replacement of certain HVAC equipment. Skanska subcontracted the HVAC work to MAP Mechanical Contractors who procured a commercial general liability policy for the project. Sometime after the project was completed, the owner discovered that some of the expansion joints were installed backwards by the subcontractor, thereby causing significant damage to concrete, steel and the heating system. The cost to repair the subcontractor’s defective work exceeded $1.4 million. Skanska sued both the subcontractor and its insurer seeking payment for the cost of the repair and replacement work.  

After the trial court found a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether coverage was triggered under the CGL policy, the court of appeals reasoned that there was no “occurrence” under the policy because the only damage was to the insured’s own work product. The court of appeals relied upon prior appellate court precedent from Michigan in reaching its decision and, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, ignored the express language of the CGL policy. In reversing the decision from the court of appeals, the court reasoned: 

Nor is there any support for the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that “accident” cannot include damage limited to the insured’s own work product. Amerisure does little to defend that holding, and focuses mainly on its fortuity argument. Most significantly, the Court of Appeals accepted that an insured can seek coverage for its damage to a third party’s property. Id. at 9-10. But the policy does not limit the definition of “occurrence” by reference to the owner of the damaged for distinguishing between damage to the insured’s work . . . the Court of Appeals failed to recognize that an insured’s own defective workmanship is excluded from coverage via the explicit exclusions, not in the initial grant of coverage.

The court went on to reject the carrier’s historical argument that including faulty subcontractor work essentially converts the policy into a performance bond. According to the court, “coverage may overlap with a performance bond is not a reason to deviate from the most reasonable reading of the policy language.” Id. at 4. The court summarized its holding as follows: 

For these reasons, given the plain meaning of the word “accident,” we conclude that faulty subcontractor work that was unintended by the insured may constitute an “accident” (and thus an “occurrence”) under a CGL policy.

Notably, the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision is limited to cases involving policy language revised by the 1986 ISO revisions to commercial general policies. Those revisions incorporated the “broad form” property endorsement as well as damage caused by faulty workmanship to other parts of work in progress including damage to, or caused by a subcontractor’s work after the insured’s operations are completed. 

This landmark decision tracks with the majority of states that recognize the changes to the standard language found in a CGL policy over the years and is a big win for policyholders in Michigan and elsewhere. For further information about this decision or coverage issues in other states, please refer to Barnes & Thornburg’s 50 state analysis of coverage decisions throughout the United States.