Pennsylvania Federal Judge Finds Condo Policy Vacancy Exclusion Ambiguous; Rules Cincinnati Insurance Owes Water Loss

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SCRANTON, Pa., Feb. 10 — A Pennsylvania federal judge ruled Feb. 10 that a vacancy exclusion in a policy was ambiguous, and obligated Cincinnati insurance to reimburse its insured for water related losses.

In Village Heights Condominium Association v. The Cincinnati Insurance Co., No. 16-554, M.D. Pa., 2017,  U.S. Middle District John Jones granted the Condominium Association’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the sum total of the Condominium’s buildings were more than 31% occupied, and therefore not vacant within the meaning of the vacancy exclusion in the Cincinnati policy, and exclusion which the Court found ambiguous.

The Village Heights is  a community comprising 50 units consisting of stand-alone homes, and apartment units. Mr. and Mrs. Herb Graves, owners of  stand-alone Unit 205 were not living in their unit and had it up for sale.  In March 2015, while on vacation, a pipe burst occurred inside the Graves unit causing significant water damage to common areas owned by the Condominium Association.

Cincinnati declined coverage, claiming that the “Vacancy Provision,” precluded indemnity because the Graves’ unit was vacant for more than 60 days.  The Association filed suit against Cincinnati, and the case was removed to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The parties in their cross-motions for summary judgment disputed whether “the policy was intended to insure the separate buildings, apart and distinct from each other, or whether the Policy meant to cover the nineteen buildings as one, making up a single ‘blanket building.’”  The policy defined a building as vacant “unless at least 31% of its square footage” is rented or used.

In finding for the Association, Judge Jones held that the exclusion was ambiguous on the issue of whether the policy provided blanket building coverage to the condominium association as a unified building or as separate buildings:

 “‘Simply put, the Policy’s Declarations do not define any terms, they merely identify the coverages available under the Policy.  Thus, the Declarations do not define a “Blanket Building,” but rather indicate that the Policy provides Blanket Building Coverage.  . . .’  Finally, the Vacancy Provision, which appears in Section Six (6) of the Policy, appears to contain its own separate definitions of the term ‘building,’ which differ according to whether the Covered Property is owned by an owner or general lessee, or is leased to a tenant and is with respect to that tenant’s interest in the property.  Where, as here, the Policy is issued to an owner, the Vacancy Provision defines ‘building’ as ‘entire building.’  In a subsequent paragraph, the Vacancy Provision then refers to “the building where ‘loss’ occurs” to further specify its terms, including a requirement that the building be vacant for sixty (60) days.”

Editor’s Note:  The Court’s ruling points to a potentially unintended exposure for property and casualty insurers.  Caution should be exercised by insurers regarding both  the wording of vacancy exclusions, and how units and buildings are defined when the policy in question insures Homeowners and Condominium Associations, as opposed to individual home or unit owners.

For a copy of  the opinion in Village Heights Condominium Association v. The Cincinnati Insurance Co., No. 16-554, M.D. Pa., 2017 (Jones, J.), email me at chaddick@dmclaw.com.

 

 

 

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Author: CJ Haddick

C.J. Haddick is a Director with the law firm of Dickie, McCamey, & Chilcote, PC, based in Pittsburgh, Pa. He has advised and represented insurers in insurance coverage and bad faith litigation for more than a quarter of a century, and written and spoken throughout the United States on insurance coverage and bad faith prevention and litigation. He is Managing Director of the firm's Harrisburg, Pa. office. Reach him at chaddick@dmclaw.com or 717-731-4800.

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