Construction Defect Damages May Exceed Cost To Repair

Peter Selvin | Ervin Cohen & Jessup

Construction defect cases often involve damage claims beyond simply the cost to repair the allegedly defective unit or component. These consequential damages may include damages for loss of use, expenses for mitigation and even attorney fees. For this reason, builders, suppliers, contractors and subcontractors who are faced with such claims should carefully review their insurance coverages, especially their CGL policies.

At the threshold, a defendant seeking coverage under its CGL policy in connection with a construction defect claim must satisfy the policy’s “occurrence” requirement. Although there is a split of authority on this point nationally, California law is settled that inadvertent property damage caused by intended construction activity constitutes an “occurrence.” See, e.g., Geddes & Smith v. St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co., 51 Cal. 2d 558, 563 (1959); Anthem Electronics v. Pacific  Employers Insurance, 302 F.3d 1049 (9th Cir. 2002). See also Scott C. Turner, “Insurance Coverage of Construction Disputes,” Sections 6:56, 6:62 (2nd Ed.).

The next step is to establish that there has been “property damage.” This is because the basic coverage grant typically provides that the CGL insurer is responsible for paying “those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay because of … property damage to which this insurance applies.” In turn, “property damage” is typically defined as either “physical injury to or destruction of tangible property … including the loss of use … resulting therefrom” or “loss of use of tangible property which has not been physically injured or destroyed [that has been] caused by an occurrence.”

It has been generally held that incorporation of defective components or faulty workmanship into a project constitutes “physical injury to tangible property,” thereby allowing coverage for damages from the loss, including damages measured by resulting decrease in the property’s value. See, e.g., United States Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Wilken Insulation Co., 550 N.E. 2d 1032 (Ill.App. 1989). The theory behind this rationale is that typical a coverage grant requires the CGL carrier to pay “those sums that insured becomes legally obligated to pay because of … property damage” (emphasis added). In other words, carrier responsibility includes not only damages that arise directly from the “property damage,” but also all sums arising because of the property damage. See, e.g., AIU Ins. Co. v. Superior Court, 51 Cal. 3d. 807 (1990) (reimbursement of response costs and the costs of injunctive relief under CERCLA and related statutes are insured “because of” property damage). While not exhaustive, the following examples illustrate some of the categories of consequential damages for which a CGL carrier may have responsibility.

Damage to the Larger Structure Caused by the Construction Defect

It is well established that damage to a physical structure, including the structure’s non-defective units or components, arising from the incorporation of the defective work should be covered under a CGL policy. See e.g., Economy Lumber v. Insurance Company of North America, 157 Cal. App. 3d 641 (1984). In some cases, damages are expressed as the diminution in value of the larger structure caused by the construction defect. See Franco Belli Plumbing & Heating v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 2012 WL 2830247, *8 (E.D.N.Y. 2012) (“when one product is integrated into a larger entity, and the component product proves defective, the harm is considered harm to the entity to the extent that the market value of the entity is reduced in excess of the value of the defective component”); see also Anthem Electronics 302 F.3d at 1056-57 (“we decline to hold that coverage was precluded simply because the extent of such damage is expressed as an economic loss”).

So-Called “Rip and Tear” Damages

Where an owner must undertake repair work to existing conditions in order to access and remediate the defective work, the damages resulting therefrom may be covered. Thus, costs and expenses relating to this activity are considered part of consequential damages for which there should be coverage. Turner, supra, Section 6.29 (coverage for the damage to other, non-defective work necessarily caused in the course of removing or repairing the defective work).

Coverage for Costs Arising from Mitigation Efforts

In some cases, an owner may be obliged to take actions and incur expenses in order to protect the project from further damage caused by the alleged defect. Although the courts are split on this issue, the majority say these expenses are also considered as part of consequential damages for which there should be coverage. Turner, supra, Section 6.14, 6.22 (“costs incurred for mitigation or prevention of further property damage” are recoverable against CGL carrier).

Loss of Use

Damage resulting from the loss of use of the premises is a key item within the larger category of consequential damages. Am. Home Assurance v. Libbey-Owens-Ford, 786 F. 2d 22,  25 (1st Cir. 1986); Federated Mutual Insurance Co. v. Concrete Units, 363 N. W. 2d 751 (Minn. 1985); Gibraltar Casualty Co. v. Sargent & Lundy, 214 Ill. App. 3d 768 (1990); Lucker Manufacturing Co. v. The Home Insurance Co., 23 F. 3d 808 (3rd Cir. 1994); M. Mooney Corp. v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 618 A.2d 793, 796 (N. H. 1992); Thee Sombrero v. Scottsdale Ins. Co., 28 Cal. App. 5th 729 (2018); Turner, supra, Section 6:33.

Attorney Fees Awards

Some courts have held that attorney fees awards against the negligent contractor, subcontractor or supplier qualify as an element of consequential damages recoverable under a CGL policy. For example, in APL Co. v. Valley Forge Ins. Co., 754 F.2d 1084 (N.D. Cal. 2010), reversed on other grounds, 541 Fed. Appx. 770 (2013), the court concluded that the attorney fees award against the insured was covered under the insurance policy at issue. The court cited the policy provision there that coverage was provided for “those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of …’property damage.’” The court noted that inasmuch as the insured became obligated to pay attorneys’ fees to the claimant arising out of the underlying property damage claim, the award was properly recoverable against the insurer. 754 F.2d at 1094.

Other cases have reached the same result. See, e.g., American Family Mutual Ins. Co. v. Spectre West Building Corp., 2011 WL 488891 (D. Az. Feb. 4, 2011) (in the context of a construction defect case, the Court found that attorneys’ fees that were assessed against the insured were covered under the insurance policy, noting that “the issue before the court is not whether attorneys’ fees and costs can be characterized as ‘property damage’, but whether they can be characterized as damages that [the defendant construction company] became legally obligated to pay because of property damage”).

In Brief: Commercial General Liability Policies in USA

Bryce L. Friedman and Mary Beth Forshaw | Simpson Thacher & Bartlett

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.

Law stated date

Correct on

Give the date on which the information above is accurate.

18 November 2020

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.

Law stated date

Correct on

Give the date on which the information above is accurate.

18 December 2019

Does a CGL Policy’s “Business Description” or “Class Code” Limit Coverage?

Farrell Miller | Cozen O’Connor

One way a CGL insurer can narrow otherwise broad bodily injury and property damage coverage is by activity. Activities that face similar risk can be grouped using an activity classification code, which can be incorporated into the policy through a class limitation endorsement.

For instance, a policy issued to an individual (for any business of which he is a sole owner) could include an “accounting” class code and a class limitation endorsement, effectively narrowing coverage to accounting activities. Courts routinely enforce such endorsements.[1]

Suppose that, instead of a class limitation endorsement for accounting, the policy’s declarations page merely said “business description: accounting” and “Class Code: 7619—Accounting.” Now suppose the individual also owns a non-accounting business and is sued for liability in connection with that business. Would that be covered? In other words, what effect should a court give to a class code or business description that isn’t incorporated into the policy by endorsement? This question underpins two divergent Circuit Court decisions.

In Smith v. Burlington Ins. Co., Smith owned and operated a courier service and a security service.[2] One of Smith’s armed security guards shot an unarmed teen while on duty at an Oklahoma apartment complex. The teen later died. His mother brought a wrongful-death action against Smith d/b/a Smith and Son Security. On Smith’s CGL policy with Burlington, the declarations designate “Form of Business” as “Individual,” and “Business Description” as “Courier Service.” The Policy section defining “who is an insured” says “If you are designated . . . as [a]n individual, you and your spouse are insureds, but only with respect to the conduct of a business of which you are the sole owner.” Within the policy was a “Schedule of Classification and Rates” listing “94099—Express Companies” (i.e. a Class Code).

Burlington denied coverage, saying that the policy was intended to cover Smith only for his courier service business. The district court sided with Burlington and the Tenth Circuit affirmed.[3] The district court held that two standard policy provisions effectively incorporated the business description into the policy itself. The first provision, a merger clause, says “declarations together with the common policy conditions and coverage form(s) and any endorsement(s), complete the above numbered policy.”[4] The second provision, in the “Representations” section, says “By accepting this policy, you agree: (a) The statements in the Declarations are accurate and complete; (b) Those statements are based upon representations you made to us; and (c) We have issued this policy in reliance upon your representations.”[5] The district court also held that using the Class Code “94099—Express Company” “rather than a code that could conceivably cover any armed security guard business confirms that there was no intent to cover Smith’s security business.”[6] The court concluded by stating that it refused to adopt a “strained interpretation that the ‘courier service’ policy covers any business Smith might choose to pursue.”[7]

In Mount Vernon Fire Ins. Co. v. Belize NY, Inc., a general contractor (GC) hired Belize NY, Inc. to perform demolition work at a church in Harlem. A few months later, the GC again hired Belize solely to supervise a subcontractors’ work at the church.[8] Months later, a person entered the church, shot and killed several people, and started a fire before taking his own life. A wrongful death suit was commenced against Belize, alleging that the GC unlawfully shut off the church’s sprinkler system and “bricked over” or eliminated several church exits.[9] On Belize’s CGL policy with Mount Vernon, the declarations designated Belize’s “Form of Business” as “Corporation,” and “Business Description” as “Carpentry.”[10] Two classifications were listed under “Premium Computation” on the Declarations Page: “Carpentry-Interior-001” and “Carpentry-001.”[11]

Mount Vernon denied coverage for the wrongful-death action, arguing that Belize was acting in a supervisory capacity rather than performing carpentry work at the time of the shooting.[12] The district court sided with Belize and the Second Circuit affirmed. The Second Circuit held that under New York law, exclusions “must be set forth clearly and unmistakably.”[13] But the policy didn’t do that, since there was no “specific language indicating that the classifications [or the business description] determine the scope of the coverage.”[14] “Were we to accept [Mount Vernon’s] argument, insurers would be permitted to argue for limitations of all kinds by invoking the stand-alone words of classification not otherwise referred to in a policy. If Mount Vernon wished to limit coverage based on classifications, it should have done so specifically.”[15]

The Smith and Mount Vernon courts appear to disagree about whether a standalone business description or class code can narrow coverage. Can Smith and Mount Vernon be harmonized? Here’s some guidance. If an insured has a CGL policy with a business description and/or class code suggesting a small risk, and seeks coverage for an activity that involves a completely different, larger, and perhaps more exotic risk (e.g. armed security service), then a court is likely to find that the insurer did not intend to cover the larger risk. To decide otherwise would unfairly blindside the insurer. On the other hand, if the insured has a policy with a business description and/or class code that suggest a risk that is similar to the actual claim (e.g. carpentry vs. construction supervision) then a court is likely to say “close enough” and find coverage. To decide otherwise would be unfair to the insured, since the policy wouldn’t clearly and unmistakably limit coverage. In the end, the safest course is to ensure that the policy accurately reflects both parties’ understanding of the risk.


[1] See, e.g.Evanston Ins. Co. v. Heeder, 490 Fed. Appx. 215 (11th Cir. 2012) (no coverage where classification limitation endorsement narrowed coverage to residential roofing, and claim arose from a commercial roofing project); Ruiz v. State Wide Insulation & Constr. Corp., 269 A.D.2d 518 (N.Y. App. Div. 2000) (no coverage where classification limitation endorsement narrowed coverage to painting and the insured party was hurt during a roof repair); Princeton Excess and Surplus Lines Ins. Co. v. US Global Security Incorporated, et al., Case 4:18-cv-02705 (S.D. Tex. Sept. 24, 2019) (no coverage where designated operations exclusion narrowed coverage to exclude injuries arising out of any work at or in bars, restaurants, taverns or other establishments selling or providing alcoholic beverages, and exception to exclusion did not apply as there were no allegations of an injury arising out of parking lot security operations).

[2] 2019 U.S. App. Lexis 19175, 2019 WL 2635725, at *1 (10th Cir. 2019) (interpreting Oklahoma law).

[3] Smith v. Burlington Ins. Co., 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 54403 (N.D. Okla. 2018), aff’d 2019 U.S. App. Lexis 19175, 2019 WL 2635725 (10th Cir. 2019).

[4] Id. at *11

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at *7.

[7] Id. at *15.

[8] 277 F.3d 232, 235 (2d Cir. 2002) (interpreting New York law).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 234.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 236.

[13] Id. at 237.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 239.

Another Record Wildfire Season: Check Your CGL Policy

Matthew R. Divelbiss and Peter D. Laun | Jones Day

With election season dominating the news cycle, it’s easy to miss the headlines from California and other Western states. “Record Wildfires on the West Coast Are Capping a Disastrous Decade.” “Global warming driving California wildfire trends – study.” “As wildfires rage, climate experts warn: The future we were worried about is here.” And the issue is not limited to the West: “Climate change could shift Pennsylvania’s wildfire season.”

But even before this record-breaking fire season (which is still underway), there was an ominous warning for policyholders: “As Wildfires Get Worse, Insurers Pull Back From Riskiest Areas.” That pullback includes attempts to restrict coverage under commercial general liability (“CGL”) policies, a central part of most companies’ insurance and risk management programs. 

CGL policies provide coverage when a policyholder accidentally causes bodily injury or property damage to a third party. Simply put, if a policyholder accidentally starts a fire that burns down someone’s house, the policyholder would look to its CGL insurer for coverage. But the new concern is that an accidental fire burns thousands of homes and businesses.      

Insurers are running from that risk in the form of “wildfire” exclusions, added as endorsements to both primary and excess CGL policies. For example, one exclusion filed with an insurance commissioner intended for use in policies issued to energy companies states: “This policy does not apply to damages, losses, costs, or expenses arising out of, resulting from or in connection with ‘wildfire’ or ‘wildfire injury’, including any cost the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as reimbursement for fighting, suppressing or bringing under control any ‘wildfire’.”

Here are three issues to think about when faced with a wildfire exclusion:

1. What is your company’s wildfire risk? Insurers are concerned about both products and operations. Do you sell products that could start a wildfire, including products that may be installed in locations that present wildfire risk? Do you perform work (such as power line or pipeline maintenance, railroad maintenance, energy development, or construction) that could somehow cause a wildfire? If a policyholder has limited risk, it may be able to negotiate to remove the exclusion. But if a policyholder’s activities pose risk, getting rid of the exclusion may be difficult. In such a circumstance, the policyholder may need to look to other insurers or insurance markets to obtain coverage, or may have to accept high deductibles and/or sublimated wildfire coverage. Alternatively, companies may need to consider more creative methods of providing for this risk, such as captives. Ultimately, policyholders may need to join together to demand federal and/or state legislative solutions to this problem.

2. Even if your company is stuck with the exclusion, should the exclusion be clarified? As written, the exclusion above purports to apply to any losses “in connection with” a wildfire. Insurers will argue that this is very broad. For example, if a policyholder were sued because its product failed while being used to fight a wildfire, the insurers may point to “in connection with” to deny coverage. Policyholders should negotiate with their insurers to clarify any exclusion and leave no doubt that any exclusion is limited to circumstances where the policyholder is allegedly responsible for causing a wildfire. That’s the risk insurers are trying to avoid. 

3. What about contractual obligations to provide wildfire insurance? Many contracts—for example, for companies that provide right-of-way services to utilities—require that the contractor maintain insurance against wildfires. Whether you’re the “contractor” or the “utility” in this or any analogous scenario, the lack of wildfire insurance presents a problem. For the “contractor,” it could be in breach of its contractual obligations if it cannot provide the agreed upon insurance. For the “utility,” it may not have the financial protection it is counting on the contractor to provide in the event of a wildfire, but the contractor’s work may very well be key to limiting wildfire risk. In such circumstances, the parties will need to work cooperatively to find a solution that protects both parties.

Insurance issues surrounding wildfires will continue to evolve in the years ahead. As they undoubtedly arise in future policy renewals, policyholders should look to their coverage counsel and brokers to navigate this area and make sure that wildfire exclusions, if they can’t be avoided, are both clear and limited.