Private Statutory Cause of Action Under Florida’s Underground Facility Damage Prevention and Safety Act

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates

Florida’s Underground Facility Damage Prevention and Safety Act is set forth in Florida Statutes Chapter 556.  Any owner or operator of underground infrastructure as well as contractors that perform underground excavation and demolition operations are familiar (or, need to be familiar) with this Act and the requirements it imposes on them.

In a nutshell, this Act requires excavators to notify operators of underground facilities (e.g., pipelines, cables, sewers) through a notification system before excavating or demolishing an underground location.  Then notification system gives the operator of the underground facility two days’ advance notice that an excavation will be taking place.  After receiving this notice, the operator of the underground facility must mark the area where its infrastructure is located which could be affected by the underground excavation or demolition operations.  The Act further imposes duties on excavators to use increased caution, supervise mechanized equipment, perform excavation and demolition operations in a careful an prudent manner, and to re-notify the notification system if the operator’s marking is no longer visible so the location of the operator’s underground facility can be re-marked.

The Florida Supreme Court in Peoples Gas System v. Posen Construction, Inc., 46 Fla.L.Weekly S166b (Fla. 2021) recently analyzed whether the Act creates a private statutory cause of action.  This case dealt with a road contractor that ruptured an underground gas pipeline during an excavation.  The rupture caused an explosion that injured an employee of the road contractor.  A dispute arose between the operator of the underground gas line and the road contractor with the operator of the gas line claiming the excavator’s advance notification was deficient.  The injured employee sued the operator of the underground gas line and the operator settled with the employee.  The operator then sued the road contractor  to recover the amount of the settlement claiming it should be entitled to recover the settlement payment as damages under the Act or for “statutory indemnity.”  The issue was whether the Act provides any such private statutory cause of action.  The Florida Supreme Court held it does create a private statutory cause of action for violations sounding in negligence, but not for “statutory indemnity”:

(1) that the Underground Facility Damage Prevention and Safety Act creates a standalone cause of action; (2) that the cause of action sounds in negligence; (3) that liability under the Act is subject to proof of proximate causation [i.e., the defendant’s negligence needs to be the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury] and to the defense of comparative fault  [i.e., a party is liable for the damages they caused per Florida Statute s. 768.81]; (4) that “losses” recoverable under the Act can include purely economic damages, independent of personal injury or property damage; and (5) that the Act does not create a cause of action for “statutory indemnity.

Peoples Gas System, supra.

This decision that the Act creates a negligence-based cause of action  is supported by Florida Statute s. 556.106(2)(a) and (b) contained in the Act that discusses liability for violations of the Act.

It is uncertain what doors will be opened by this Florida Supreme Court decision.  However, what is clear is that a negligence-based statutory cause of action can be asserted for violations of the Act and the damages can include economic damages that have nothing to do with personal injury or property damage.

CGL, Builders Risk Coverage and Exclusions When Construction Defects Cause Property Damage

Jeffrey Cavignac | Construction Executive

Direct damage to property under construction caused by faulty or defective work or defective materials has been a coverage issue for decades. Two specific policies, the Commercial General Liability for the contractors building the structure and the Builders Risk Policy on the project both are sources of potential coverage. 

A CGL policy protects the named insured (the contractor in this case) from third party liability arising out of the insured’s operations that results in either bodily injury or property damage. Damage to property caused by poor workmanship or defective materials would qualify as property damage. To understand how the CGL policy might respond to claims such as these, it is necessary to evaluate several exclusions in the CGL policy. 

CGL policies cover “property damage,” defined as physical injury to tangible property, including loss of use of such property, and loss of use of tangible property that has not been physically injured. 

Exclusion M provides that there is no coverage for loss of use of property that has not been physically injured due to a defect in the work. This is significant, because it means that there is no CGL coverage for defective work without physical injury to the work. 

For example, prior to completion on a construction project, inspection revealed that windows were not properly installed, making them prone to leaks. But no leaking had occurred. Removing and reinstalling the windows delayed the project by two weeks. The owner made a claim against the GC for lost revenue for the two weeks. There is no CGL coverage because the loss of use was purely due to defective work, with no physical injury (the CGL only covers liability that results in bodily injury or tangible property damage). 

There are two additional exclusions applicable to property damage in the course of construction, exclusions J.5 and J.6:

  • Exclusion J.5 excludes property damage to that particular part of property on which the insured or its contractors are working if the property damage arises out of their work. This exclusion typically applies where a mistake in performance causes damage. Resultant property damage caused by the mistake would be covered, but damage to “that particular part” that caused the loss would not be covered. For example, an electrical contractor caused a fire while working in the mechanical room that triggered the fire suppression system building-wide, causing widespread water damage. The exclusion applies only to the electrical components in the mechanical room damaged by fire. 
  • Exclusion J.6 excludes property damage to that particular part of property that must be repaired or replaced because the insured’s work was defectively performed on it. For example, a concrete subcontractor improperly mixed a concrete batch, resulting in a section of foundation that cracked, causing a shift in the structure. Structural components supported by the faulty area were damaged. The section needed to be demolished and re-poured with major repairs needed to the rest of the structure. The re-pour is excluded but the damage to the rest of the structure was not.
    Сonfidence in the future

In both cases, the CGL affords coverage for physical damage to the work caused by defects or defective work–basically the ensuing damage. In neither case would the General Liability policy cover that particular part that was either worked on or needed to be repaired or replaced due to defective work. 

Project-Specific CGL Coverage (OCIPs and CCIPs) needs to be considered in a different light. Nearly every OCIP or CCIP will include an exclusion for property damage to the insured project during the course of construction (note, that a small minority of insurers may remove this exclusion if the contractor can provide evidence of a LEG 2 or 3 endorsement). These are often referred to as “Course of Construction” or “Builder’s Risk Exclusions.” These exclusions are added with the expectation that the builder’s risk insurance should provide coverage for damage to the structure during the course of construction. 

Providing coverage under a first party property form is preferred to a third- party liability form because it should eliminate any litigation. The key is negotiating broad and favorable terms under the Builders Risk policy. A well-written Builders Risk policy will include:

  • all stakeholders as insureds;
  • comply with the contractual terms of the contract;
  • possibly include earthquake and flood;
  • include water related damage other than flood; and
  • ideally include not only resultant damage caused by defective work or materials but if available damage to that “particular part” that caused the problem. 

The U.S. builder’s risk market is dominated by manuscript forms. There are some consistencies, but each form must be carefully reviewed. With respect to coverage for property damage during the course of construction caused by defective work, domestic forms generally fall into two categories. 

The first type, which is less common, excludes all damage caused by, or arising out of faulty workmanship. This removes coverage for repairing defective work as well as for any damage to the project resulting from the defective work. These forms offer less coverage than the ISO CGL policy and should be avoided. 

The second, more common, domestic form excludes loss or damage caused by faulty work, unless the damage is caused by a covered cause of loss. These are commonly referred to as “ensuing loss exceptions.” Taking the example of the concrete subcontractor who improperly mixed the concrete that resulted in structural damage, in this case the re-pour is excluded but the damage to the rest of the structure is not because collapse is a covered peril. 

Most domestic builder’s risk policies with ensuring loss exceptions provide roughly the same scope of coverage for property damage during the course of construction as an ISO CGL policy. Neither policy provides coverage for the cost of replacing defective work, but both policies cover direct damage to the rest of the project caused by the defective work. In the case of a Builders Risk policy this ensuing loss must be caused by a covered peril. 

An underwriting syndicate in London came up with proposed endorsements that specifically address the faulty workmanship issue. Authored by the London Engineering Group, these have come to be known as LEG1, LEG2 and LEG3: 

  • LEG1 is the most restrictive. It excludes coverage for all loss or damage “due to defects of material workmanship, design plan or specification,” whether damage to other property has occurred or not. LEG1 is the basic equivalent of the first category of US market forms that exclude all damage caused by defective work, without the “ensuing loss exception.” 
  • LEG2 excludes coverage for all loss or damage “due to defects of material workmanship, design plan or specification,” but maintains coverage for insured property damaged by the defect, except for the cost that would have been incurred if the replacement or rectification had been done before the damage. LEG2 is roughly equivalent to the U.S. market form with the “ensuing loss exception.” It covers resulting property damage to the project, but not damage to the part causing the problem. This makes LEG2 also roughly equivalent to an ISO CGL policy in terms of the scope of coverage for property damage during the course of construction. 
  • LEG3 provides the broadest coverage. This endorsement extends coverage to not only the ensuing damage, but damage to that “particular part” that caused the damage. Coverage does not extend to costs “incurred to improve the original material workmanship, design plan or specification.” As long as there is resulting property damage, the LEG3 form covers all repair costs, including the cost of repairing or replacing the defective work. 

LEG2 and LEG3 each contain an additional provision stating that “it is understood and agreed” that insured property shall not be considered damaged “notes solely by virtue of the existence of any defect of material workmanship, etc…”. In other words, there must be a covered cause of loss to trigger coverage. In simple terms, LEG3 coverage excludes the cost to repair a defect where there is no resulting damage, and the cost of improvements over and above the original work.

Here, in the example of the concrete subcontractor who improperly mixed the concrete that resulted in structural damage, the re-pour is covered along with damage to the rest of the structure. If, as an added safety precaution, the foundation was reinforced with metal rods, the cost of adding the metal rods would not be covered. The LEG3 form provides broader coverage for damage caused by defective work than the ISO CGL policy. The ISO CGL policy does not cover the cost of repairing or replacing defective work whereas LEG3 does. It should also be pointed out that LEG3 Endorsements are usually not available on smaller projects or frame construction.

Insuring construction projects are complex. There are numerous stakeholders as well as significant exposures, General Liability, property under construction, pollution, workers compensation, professional liability, etc. 

 Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

  • It is always better to have a loss covered by a property policy than a liability policy to avoid the litigation costs, ill will and time litigation can take. 
  • Negotiate the most favorable Builders Risk terms available. All Builders Risk policies are different and all are negotiable. 
  • Understand how construction defects caused by faulty workmanship or defective products will be treated. Whenever possible a LEG3 type endorsement should be sought. 
  • Communicate the coverage provided, or lack thereof to the named insureds. Just because the broker knows it, doesn’t mean the insured knows it. 

There is no substitute for taking the time to understand the risks of a project and negotiating favorable terms for all stakeholders. A well written and coordinated insurance program is a critical piece to a successful project.

Injured Subcontractor Employee Asserts Premise Liability Claim Against General Contractor

David Adelstein | Florida Construction Legal Updates

In an interesting opinion, an injured employee of an electrical subcontractor sued the general contractor of a parking garage project under a premise liability theory after being injured when stepping on an uncovered floor drain at the project site.  There is no discussion in the opinion as to workers compensation immunity.  Rather, the discussion centers on the injured employee’s premise liability claim as to whether the general contractor “breached its duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition by leaving the drain uncovered and failing to warn of the danger of the uncovered drain.”  Pratus v. Marzucco’s Construction & Coatings, Inc., 46 Fla.L.Weekly D186a (Fla. 2d DCA 2021)

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the general contractor finding that the drain was open and obvious on the site.  The Second District Court of Appeal reversed the summary judgment with a discussion as to premise liability claims, particularly as it pertains to a business invitee, which is what the injured employee of the electrical subcontractor was.

First, the Second District held that as a business invitee, the general contractor owed the injured employee two duties: “(1) the duty to use reasonable care in maintaining the property in a reasonably safe condition; and (2) the duty to warn of dangers of which the owner has or should have knowledge and which are unknown to the invitee and cannot be discovered by the invitee through the exercise of reasonable care. ”  Pratus, supra (internal quotations and citation omitted).

Second, the Second the Second District held that “[t]he obvious danger doctrine provides that an owner or possessor of land is not liable for injuries to an invitee caused by a dangerous condition on the premises when the danger is known or obvious to the injured party, unless the owner or possessor should anticipate the harm despite the fact that the dangerous condition is open and obvious.”  Pratus, supra (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Third, the Second District held that the issue was not whether the floor drain was open and obvious, but whether the uncovered floor drain—the alleged dangerous condition—was open and obvious and involves a consideration of “all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the accident and the alleged dangerous condition.”   Pratus, supra (internal quotations and citations omitted).

And fourth, the Second District held irrespective of whether the alleged dangerous condition was open and obvious, the general contractor “still had a duty to maintain the premises in a reasonably safe condition if it could have anticipated the harm to [the injured employee] as a result of the uncovered drain.” Pratus, supra (internal quotations and citations omitted).  This required the contractor to establish “it should not have anticipated the potential harm to [the injured employee] as a result of the uncovered drain, notwithstanding his knowledge of the danger.”  Id.

Does this case open the door for premise liability claims against a general contractor as a possessor of the construction site?  It is uncertain because of the lack of discussion of workers compensation immunity.  Perhaps this was an issue in the case because there was no workers compensation to cover the inured employee.  Or, perhaps this was an argument around workers compensation immunity.  Regardless, this case highlights the significance in ensuring there are safety protocols and training in place on every project, no matter how big or small!

No Coverage for Home Damaged by Falling Boulders

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

    The policy’s earth movement exclusion barred coverage for the home damaged by large boulders rolling down from the hillside above. Sullivan v. Nationwide Affinity Ins. Co. of Am., 2021 U.S. App. LEZXIS 628 (10th Cir Jan. 11, 2021). 

    Plaintiffs’ home sustained extensive damage when two or three large builders rolled down a steep hillside and struck the home. The insurer, Nationwide, hired an engineering firm that determined the boulders were not influenced by meteorological conditions such as torrential rain or high winds. The report noted that rockfall hazards existed primarily due to an undercut sandstone outcrop, and evidenced by numerous rocks from rockfall events that scattered Plaintiffs’ property. 

    Based on the report, Nationwide denied coverage under the earth movement exclusion. The exclusion provided Nationwide did “not insure for loss caused directly or indirectly by . . . Earth Movement” and regardless of “whether or not the loss event results in widespread damage or affects a substantial area.” The policy further defined “earth movement” to include “landslide . . . or any other earth movement including earth sinking, risking or shifting.”

    Plaintiffs sued and Nationwide moved for summary judgment. Plaintiffs submitted their own report which stated that a rockfall was not a landslide and the term “earth” meant soil and not rock. But the report also quoted sources suggesting that a rockfall was a type of landslide. The district court granted summary judgment to Nationwide. 

    There was no definitive Colorado law on whether damage caused by the rockfall was excluded under the earth movement provision. The court surveyed case law from other jurisdictions and concluded the Colorado Supreme Court would follow the cases which held that a rockfall was excluded. Further, dictionaries defined “landslide” to include the movement of rock alone. Therefore, a reasonably objective insured would read the earth movement exclusion as excluding coverage for the event here, either as a “landslide” or as “another earth movement including earth sinking, risking or shifting.” 

In Brief: Commercial General Liability Policies in USA

Mary Beth Forshaw | Simpson Thacher

Standard commercial general liability policies

Bodily injury

What constitutes bodily injury under a standard CGL policy?

CGL policies generally provide coverage for bodily injury or property damage sustained by third parties (rather than the policyholder) as a result of an occurrence.

Insurance coverage litigation frequently centres on whether the underlying claims against the policyholder allege bodily injury or property damage within the meaning of the applicable insurance policy, and whether the events giving rise to the injury or damage were caused by an occurrence.

The phrase ‘bodily injury’ in insurance contracts generally connotes a physical problem. However, a number of courts have ruled that the term also encompasses non-physical or emotional distress, either standing alone or accompanied by physical manifestations.

The question of whether bodily injury exists may also arise where an underlying complaint alleges non-traditional or quasi-physical harm, such as biological or cellular level injury or medical monitoring claims. Courts addressing these and other analogous bodily injury questions have arrived at mixed decisions. Bodily injury determinations are often case-specific, turning on the particular factual record presented.

Property damage

What constitutes property damage under a standard CGL policy?

Property damage typically requires injury to or loss of use of tangible property. Therefore, the mere risk of future damage is generally insufficient to constitute property damage. Similarly, it is generally held that the inclusion of a defective component in a product, standing alone, does not constitute property damage. Numerous other allegations of harm or potential harm to property have generally been deemed to fall outside the scope of covered property damage, including the following:

  • injury to intangible property (such as computer data);
  • injury to goodwill or reputation;
  • pure economic loss; and
  • diminished property value.

However, although economic loss is not equated with property damage, courts may use a policyholder’s economic loss as a measure of damages for property damage where physical damage is found to exist.

Occurrences

What constitutes an occurrence under a standard CGL policy?

Virtually all modern-day general liability insurance policies provide coverage for an occurrence that takes place during the policy period. The insurance term ‘occurrence’ is typically equated with or defined as an accident or an event that results in damage or injury that was unexpected and unintended by the policyholder.

Insurance litigation frequently involves several issues relating to the occurrence requirement:

  • whether intentional conduct that results in unexpected or unintended harm constitutes an occurrence;
  • whether negligent conduct that results in expected or intended harm constitutes an occurrence;
  • whether an event or series of events constitutes a single occurrence or multiple occurrences;
  • whether the occurrence falls within a given policy period (ie, what is the operative event that triggers a policy?); and
  • how insurance obligations should be divided among multiple insurers (or the policyholder) when an occurrence spans multiple policy periods (ie, allocation).

Although it is a widely accepted principle that insurance policies provide coverage only for fortuitous events, and cannot insure against intentional or wilful conduct, it is less clear whether (and under what circumstances) intentional conduct that results in unexpected and unforeseen damage can constitute a covered occurrence. This question has arisen in a multitude of factual contexts, including claims arising out of faulty workmanship, pollution and fax blasting in violation of federal statutes. In evaluating the occurrence issue, some courts focus on the initial conduct of the policyholder, while other courts look to whether the resulting harm was unexpected or unintended.

How is the number of covered occurrences determined?

The determination of whether damage or injury is caused by a single occurrence or by multiple occurrences has significant implications for available coverage. The number of occurrences may impact both the policyholder’s responsibility for deductible payments and the per occurrence policy limits that are available. Thus, it is a hotly contested issue in insurance litigation. Most courts utilise a cause-based analysis to determine the number of occurrences. Under the cause-oriented approach, if there is one proximate cause of the injury, there is one occurrence, regardless of the number of claims or incidents of harm.

In contrast, under an effects-oriented analysis, the focus is on the number of discrete injury-causing events.

A number of occurrences disputes arise in virtually all substantive areas of insurance litigation, including claims arising out of asbestos, environmental harm, natural disasters, and the manufacture or distribution of harmful products.

Coverage

What event or events trigger insurance coverage?

Litigation that centres on whether a given policy period has been implicated by an occurrence is generally referred to as a ‘trigger of coverage’ dispute. ‘Trigger’ describes what must happen within the policy period for an insurer’s coverage obligations to be implicated. In cases involving ongoing or continuous property damage or personal injury, the question of what triggers policy coverage may be complex. From a legal perspective, courts employ several different methods to resolve trigger disputes. For bodily injury claims, the operative trigger event has been held to be:

  • at the time of exposure to a harmful substance;
  • at the time the injury manifests itself;
  • at the time of actual ‘injury in fact’; or
  • a combination or inclusion of all of the above.

Property damage claims have also given rise to multiple trigger approaches, some of which focus on the initial event that set the property damage into motion, while others look to the time that physical damage became evident. From a factual perspective, parties are often required to submit voluminous evidence in support of their position as to when property damage or bodily injury actually occurred. Expert witnesses are often retained to address trigger issues.

How is insurance coverage allocated across multiple insurance policies?

When an occurrence triggers multiple policy periods, disputes frequently arise as to how indemnity costs should be allocated among various insurers. The emerging trend in courts in the United States is a pro rata approach, which apportions loss among triggered policies based on insurers’ proportionate responsibilities. In applying pro rata allocation, courts have considered:

  • the time that each insurer is on the risk;
  • the policy limits of each triggered policy;
  • the proportion of injuries during each policy; or
  • a combination of these and other factors.

Pro rata allocation also typically contemplates policyholder responsibility for periods of no coverage or insufficient coverage. The pro rata allocation approach stems from policy language that limits insurers’ obligations to damage ‘during the policy period’. Some jurisdictions that utilise a pro rata approach recognise an ‘unavailabilty’ exception. The unavailability exception provides that apportionment to the insured for uninsured periods is not warranted if insurance was unavailable in the marketplace during the relevant time frame. If this unavailability is established, losses during the uninsured periods are allocated among the insurers.

A minority of courts endorse a joint and several liability approach, under which a policyholder is entitled to select a single policy from multiple triggered policies from which to seek indemnification. This approach stems from common policy language requiring an insurer to pay ‘all sums’ that the policyholder becomes legally obligated to pay. Notably, even courts that endorse all sums allocation typically allow a targeted insurer to pursue contributions from other triggered insurers.

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18 December 2019