Are Untimely Repairs an “Occurrence” Triggering CGL Coverage?

Christopher G. Hill | Construction Law Musings

All Class A commercial contractors in Virginia are required to have a minimum level of Commercial General Liability (CGL) coverage.  As a general rule, this insurance is there for damage to property or persons arising from an “occurrence” that is covered by the policy.  Many cases that are litigated relating to coverage for certain events under a CGL policy turn on the definition of “occurrence” and whether the event leading to a request for coverage constitutes an “occurrence.”

A recent case in Fairfax County, Virginia, Erie Insurance Exchange v. Spalding Enterprises, et al., is just such a case.  In the Spalding Enterprises case, the Court considered the following scenario.  A homeowner, Mr. Yen contracted with Spalding Enterprises to fix some fire damage at his home.  Spalding promised the repairs would be complete in October of 2019.  However, after Mr. Yen paid a $300,000.00 deposit, Spalding Enterprises stated that the work would not be completed until November of 2019.  Yen then fired Spalding Enterprises and sued for breach of contract, constructive fraud, and violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.  Spalding Enterprises sought coverage from Erie Insurance for the claim and Erie denied coverage and sought a declaratory judgment that the events alleged in the Complaint by Mr. Yen did not fall under the definition of “occurrence” in the CGL policy held by Spalding Enterprises.

After discussing the definition of occurrence in the policy and the law in Virginia that generally precludes intentional acts from that definition where the result of the intentional act is a natural or probable consequence of that intentional act, the Court stated:

Here, Mr. Yen’s detrimental reliance is unquestionably a natural or probable consequence of the misrepresentations made upon which Mr. Yen was intended to rely. It follows that any alleged constructive fraud in the complaint is not an occurrence under Spaulding Enterprise’s CGL policy with Erie.

Because the fraud allegations (set out in more detail in the opinion) stated that the damages directly arose from the actions of Spalding Enterprises, the Court agreed with Erie and stated that the allegations in the factual allegations found in the Complaint did not constitute an “occurrence” under the policy.

The takeaways (aside from having an experienced Virginia construction attorney assist with any of these tricky issues) are 1. CGL policies do not cover everything and 2. be sure to carefully read any policy documents because the Virginia courts will look at the specific language very carefully in determining if coverage applies.

Coverage for Defective Work? Michigan Joins Majority

Alexander G. Thrasher and Heather Howell Wright | International Law Office

Michigan has joined the majority of jurisdictions in holding that a general liability policy may provide coverage for claims for property damage allegedly caused by the defective work of a subcontractor. In a unanimous decision reversing the Michigan Court of Appeals, the Michigan Supreme Court held that a subcontractor’s unintentional defective work was an “accident” and, thus, an “occurrence” covered under the subcontractor’s commercial general liability (CGL) policy.

In Skanska USA Building Inc. v. MAP Mechanical Contractors, Inc., Skanska USA Building Inc. served as the construction manager on a medical center renovation project. Skanska hired defendant MAP Mechanical Contractors, Inc. (MAP) to perform heating and cooling work that included the installation of expansion joints on part of a steam boiler and piping system. Several years after the installation, extensive damage to concrete, steel, and the heating system occurred, and Skanska determined that the cause was MAP’s incorrect installation of some of the expansion joints. Skanska repaired and replaced the damaged property at a cost of about $1.4 million and submitted a claim to MAP’s insurer, co-defendant Amerisure Insurance Company. Amerisure denied coverage for the claim, and Skanska filed suit.

The trial court denied competing summary judgment motions, and Skanska and Amerisure both filed applications for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals. The applications were granted, and the appeals were consolidated.

The policy provided coverage for “property damage” caused by an “occurrence.” The term “occurrence” was defined as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” Interpreting this language, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that summary judgment should be granted to Amerisure as “there was no ‘occurrence’ under the CGL policy because the only damage was to the insured’s own work product.” The term “accident” is not defined in the policy and the Court of Appeals, applying a definition of “accident” from Michigan appellate court precedent, reasoned that there was no “accident” and thus no “occurrence” to trigger coverage under the policy.

Skanska appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. The Skanska Court began its review by focusing on the policy’s definition of “occurrence” as an “accident.” In doing so, the court relied on a definition of “accident” as “an undefined contingency, a casualty, a happening by chance, something out of the usual course of things, unusual, fortuitous, not anticipated and not naturally to be expected.” Amerisure contended that an “accident” must involve “fortuity,” or “something over which the insured has no control,” but the court disagreed. Instead, the court concluded that the term “accident” is both plain and broad in its meaning and a subcontractor’s faulty work may fall within the court’s definition of an “accident.” Although “fortuity” is one way to show an accident occurred, the court was steadfast that it is not the only way to do so.

The court also rejected the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that “accident” cannot include damage limited to the insured’s own work product because the policy at issue did not limit the definition of “occurrence” with any reference to the owner of the damaged property.

Finally, the court rejected Amerisure’s argument that providing coverage for the faulty subcontractor’s work would convert the insurance policy into a performance bond. The court observed: The fact that “coverage may overlap with a performance bond is not a reason to deviate from the most reasonable reading of the policy language.”

Whether faulty or defective workmanship constitutes an “occurrence” under the CGL is a state-specific question, and courts across the country are divided on this issue. While some states have held that faulty workmanship or improper construction is not an “occurrence” because it can never be an “accident,” others have held that faulty workmanship can be an “accident” if the resulting damage occurs without the insured’s expectation or foresight. The recent trend has been for courts to find that a construction defect or faulty workmanship satisfies the “occurrence” and “property damage” requirements under a general liability policy and losses sustained as a result of such defects may be covered. The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision is yet another example that the tide continues to change in favor of insureds as to whether property damage caused by defective work may be covered under a general liability policy.

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.)

Heads I win, Tails You Lose: Southern Owners Insurance Company v. MAC Contractors

Julius Parker | Butler Weihmuller Katz Craig

On July 29, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Southern Owners Ins. Co. v. MAC Contractors, of Fla., LLC, — Fed. Appx. —, 2020 WL 4345199 (11th Cir. July 29, 2020).  While claiming to follow its own precedent, which narrowly interpreted the Florida Supreme Court’s decisions in United States Fire Ins. Co. v. J.S.U.B., Inc., 979 So. 2d 871 (Fla. 2007) and Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Pozzi Window Co., 984 So. 2d 1241 (Fla. 2008), the Court reached the conclusion that a complaint which alleged that a newly-constructed home was “replete with construction defects” sufficiently pled “property damage” within the meaning of a general liability policy.  As such, it concluded that the insurer owed a duty to defend its insured home builder against a construction defect claim. This constitutes a departure from the court’s previous position on this issue.

In Amerisure Mut. Ins. Co. v. Auchter Co., 673 F.3d 1294 (11th Cir. 2012), the Eleventh Circuit interpreted the J.S.U.B. and Pozzi Window cases to reach the conclusion that a general liability policy did not cover a claim made against the insured general contractor for a roof which was defectively installed by a subcontractor.  The roof was composed of ceramic S-shaped tiles which required fastening at a precise torque in order to function as designed.  The roofing contractor failed to apply the correct torque, leading to the tiles becoming dislodged and falling off the building during heavy winds.  

The Court explained its reasoning:

The only damages Amelia alleges are those to correct the faulty roof supplied by Auchter’s subcontractor.  In so claiming, Amelia is effectively seeking to secure the roof that Auchter should have installed in the first instance: one that conformed with the contract specifications.  Amelia’s claim is thus simply a “claim for the cost of repairing the subcontractor’s defective work.”  U.S. Fire Ins. Co. v. J.S.U.B., Inc., 979 So. 2d 871, 890 (Fla. 2007).  As such, Amelia’s claim alleges no “property damage.”  See id.

Auchter, 673 F.3d at 1307.

Following Auchter, the Eleventh Circuit held that where the work of one subcontractor damages the work of another subcontractor, the complaint alleges “property damage” requiring the insurer to defend.  See Carithers v. Mid-Continent Cas. Co., 782 F.3d 1240 (11th Cir. 2015).  There, a brick mason installed brick veneer on a house and a different subcontractor defectively applied a coating over the bricks.  The Court thus held that the complaint alleged property damage to property other than the coating subcontractor’s work (i.e., the bricks).

Relying on Carithers, the Eleventh Circuit in MAC Contractors held that the District Court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the insurer:

Here, the language of the underlying complaint, “at least marginally and by reasonable implication, could be construed” to create potential coverage under the policy. …  The operative amended complaint alleged that KJIMS used subcontractors for work on the residence and that the residence was “replete with construction defects” and various damage. It did not further allege which subcontractors performed which work or how the damage occurred. Given these ambiguities, the complaint’s allegations are broad enough to allow KJIMS to prove that one subcontractor negligently damaged nondefective work performed by another subcontractor.

MAC Contractors, 2020 WL 4345199 at *4, citing Trizec Props., Inc. v. Biltmore Constr. Co., Inc., 767 F.2d 810, 813 (11th Cir. 1985).

The problem with MAC Contractors is that it departs from the firmly-established rule that the plaintiff must plead concrete facts which show that coverage is implicated.  Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. v. Lenox Liquors, Inc., 358 So. 2d 533 (Fla. 1977).  The complaint in MAC Contractors did not allege that any one subcontractor damaged the work of any other subcontractor, only that the house was “replete with construction defects.”  Rather, the Eleventh Circuit found the duty to defend based upon the possibility that the complaint could be interpreted to allege that one subcontractor damaged the work of another subcontractor.  Basing the duty to defend on the ambiguity of a complaint turns the duty to defend on its head.

Following MAC Contractors, plaintiffs’ counsel in construction defects will be encouraged to plead vague allegations of property damage, because the more vague the complaint, the more it could be read to allege that which it does not.  Fortunately for insurers, the Court elected not to publish its decision in the Federal Reporter.  Therefore, under Rule 36-2 of the Eleventh Circuit’s Rules, the case may not be cited as binding precedent.  That of course begs the question, “Why issue an opinion which runs roughshod over prior established law and then banish it to the ethereal realm of unpublished decisions?”  The decision is pending a Motion for Reconsideration by the three-judge panel only, so perhaps there is hope for a sounder outcome upon reconsideration. 

Fifth Circuit Holds Insurer Owes Duty to Defend Latent Condition Claim That Caused Fire Damage to Property Years After Construction Work

Jeremy Macklin | Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry

Most general liability policies only provide coverage for “property damage” that occurs during the policy period. Thus, when analyzing coverage for a construction defect claim, it is important to ascertain the date on which damage occurred. Of course, the plaintiffs’ bar crafts pleadings to be purposefully vague as to the date (or period) of damage to property. A recent Fifth Circuit decision applying Texas law addresses this coverage issue in the context of allegations of a condition created by an insured during the policy period that caused damage after the policy expired.

In Gonzalez v. Mid-Continent Cas. Co., 969 F.3d 554 (5th Cir. 2020), Gilbert Gonzales (the insured) was a siding contractor. In 2013, the underlying plaintiff hired Gonzales to install new siding on his house. In 2016, the underlying plaintiff’s house was damaged in a fire. The underlying plaintiff sued Gilbert in Texas state court alleging that when Gonzalez installed the siding in 2013, he hammered nails through electrical wiring and created a dangerous condition that caused a fire three years later in 2016.

At the time Gilbert performed construction work, he was insured by Mid-Continent Casualty Company. Mid-Continent disclaimed coverage to Gonzales on the basis that the complaint unequivocally alleged that property was damaged in 2016 and there were no allegations that property damage occurred prior to 2016 or was continuing in nature.

The Fifth Circuit started its analysis by acknowledging Texas’ strict eight-corners rule for determining an insurer’s duty to defend. Relying on prior Texas and Fifth Circuit decisions (Don’s Building Supply, Inc. v. OneBeacon Insurance Co.Wilshire Insurance Co. v. RJT Construction, LLC, and VRV Development L.P. v. Mid-Continent Casualty Co.), the court narrowed its focus to “actual, physical damage alleged in the underlying litigation.” The court reasoned, “[i]f the only alleged damage occurred outside of the policy period, then there is no duty to defend. But if any of the alleged damage occurred during the policy period, then the duty to defend attaches.”

The court held that the underlying lawsuit “plainly alleges physical injury to property that occurred within the policy period.” The court identified three reasons for its holding: (1) the underlying complaint stated that the 2016 fire “relates back to [the] construction and/or installation of siding” in 2013, (2) the policy defined “property damage” to include “all resulting loss of use of that property,” so damage to the wire includes damage to the entire house, and (3) the underlying plaintiff’s claim of damages alleged that “the electrical wires were damaged in 2013.”

Judge Catharina Haynes dissented, explaining that she would hold that property damaged occurred after the policy period ended, when the fire broke out in 2016. Judge Haynes agreed that the court is bound by Don’s BuildingWilshire, and VRV Development, but she emphasized that those cases also hold that when an underlying plaintiff alleges actual, physical damage due to the insured’s negligent conduct, the alleged property damage does not relate back to the time of the negligent act when determining when the property damage occurred. Judge Haynes criticized the majority for focusing on the time of the negligent conduct.

The Gonzales decision highlights the importance of analyzing each allegation in an underlying pleading to determine when any physical injury may have occurred. The dissent also leaves the door open for a different panel of Fifth Circuit judges to distinguish or reverse Gonzales.