Federal Judge Rules Pollution Exclusion Ambiguous; Orders Insurers To Defend School District In Copper/Lead Class Action

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Pittsburgh, June 9 – A U.S. District Judge in Pittsburgh has granted a motion for judgment on the pleadings in favor of a school district, ordering a primary and excess insurer to defend the district in a pollution class action case.  In The Netherlands Ins. Co., et. al. v. Butler School District, et. al., U.S District Judge Arthur Schwab interepreted pollution exclusions in the involved insurance policies as ambiguous because they did not specifically exclude pollution claims arising out of copper becoming “bioavailable.”

The school district had a  general liability policy issued by Netherlands and an umbrella policy written by Peerless.  The insurers sought a declaratory judgment in the Western District of Pa. that they had no duty to defend the district because the claims were within exclusions for “pollutants” and lead exposure.

Judge Schwab ruled that both The Netherlands Insurance Co. and Peerless Insurance Co. had to defend Butler Area School District and a prior superintendent, Dale Lumley,  from parents’ claims against the district for concealing hazardous levels of lead and copper in one of the district’s elementary schools.  The Court found the insurance policies’ general pollution exclusions were ambiguous enough to allow coverage and that the specific lead poisoning exclusions did not specifically reference copper.

In ruling on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Schwab looked to prior decisions in lead paint cases which held that exclusions “arising out of the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of ‘pollutants,’” did not sufficiently address the gradual chemical process by which the paint caused lead poisoning.

“These findings are similar to the facts, as here, where lead and copper are essentially components of the water system at Summit Elementary, which have degraded over time, thereby allegedly rendering the lead and copper bioavailable.”

The judge also held that without a specific copper exclusion, the insurers were bound  to provide a defense in the underlying case, as there has been no factual decisions made as to whether the alleged injuries were caused by the lead, copper or both.  He also ruled that the duty to indemnify would have to await those factual determinations in the underlying case.

Judge Schwab emphasized the bedrock premise that the duty to defend was broader than the duty to indemnify, and then concluded:

“The court will not countenance the insurers’ invitation to turn Pennsylvania law relative to the duty to defend on its head, so as to allow the potential exclusion of a single type of claim to relieve them of their duty to defend, when the law actually requires a defense when a single potentially covered claim is alleged.”

The Netherlands Ins. Co., et. al. v. Butler School District, et. al., (W.D. Pa., June 9, 2017)(Schwab, J.)

 

W.Va. Supreme Court Finds Earth Movement Exclusion Unambiguous

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WEST VIRGINIA,  June 2  – The West Virginia Supreme Court  ruled that Erie Insurance was not liable to provide coverage to an insured business which claimed landslide damage, in part because the earth movement exclusion in the policy made no distinction between natural and artificial earth movement events.

In Erie Property and Casualty Ins. Co. v. Chaber, the Chabers’ motorcycle shop leased property and insured it with a policy issued by Erie Insurance Property and Casualty Co.  A Feb. 19, 2014, landslide caused damages to the property, including broken windows.  Erie engaged an expert who opined the damage was the result of seasonal climate change.  The insureds disputed the claim, and engaged an expert who said the loss was the result of improperly excavated ground.

The W.Va. Circuit Court granted judgment in favor of the Chabers in February 2016, holding that the insuring agreement did not unambiguously exclude manmade landslides.  The state Supreme Court reversed, however, and held that manmade landslides and natural events were both excluded from the Earth Movement Exclusion in the policy.  They also held that that an exception for glass breakage to the exclusion could  not be extended to cover all aspects of the loss.

Judge Margaret Workman wrote:

“A provision in an insurance policy that excludes a loss regardless of whether such loss is ‘caused by an act of nature or is otherwise caused’ is not ambiguous and excludes coverage for the loss whether it is caused by a man-made or a naturally-occurring event.”

The Court also found that while ensuing loss involving breakage of glass was covered via an exception to the Earth Movement Exclusion, the lower court misapplied that exception when it used it to require Erie to pay for the entire claim, calling the circuit court’s interpretation “unjustifiable.”

Erie Insurance Property and Casualty Ins. Co.  v. Chaber, No. 16-0490, W.Va. Supreme Court (Workman, J.)

 

Insured’s Claims Conduct Dooms Bad Faith Claim, Federal Judge Rules

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SCRANTON, May 30 – In Turner v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 3:15-CV-906, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81922 (M.D. Pa. May 30, 2017), U.S. District Judge Richard Conaboy dismissed the plaintiff’s bad faith case, finding that the insured, who was already paid nearly $350,000 for a fire property loss by State Farm, delayed and frustrated a disputed additional payment amount.

The parties disputed that the insured was entitled to more than $17,000 in landscaping charges.  The insurer had already paid $347,000 for other property loss.  And while the contract dispute over the landscaping fees was not resolved at summary judgment, the bad faith claim made by the insured was dismissed, Judge Conaboy finding it unthinkable” on the facts that a jury could find State Farm acted in bad faith.

The Court ruled that the issue of delay could be analyzed first by a review of the insuring agreement itself.  Judge Conaboy found that the policy placed a duty on the insured to advance his claim by providing information supporting the claim.  The insured in this case, the Court observed, delayed production of supporting documentation for over a year:

“To succeed on a bad faith claim, a Plaintiff must demonstrate “(1) that the insurer lacked a reasonable basis for denying benefits; and (2) that the insurer knew or recklessly disregarded its lack of reasonable basis.” Verdetto v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, 837 F.Supp 2d. 480, 484 (M.D.Pa. 2011), affirmed 510 Fed. Appx. 209, 2013 W.L. 175175 (3d. Cir. 2013)(quoting Klinger v. State Farm Mutual Insurance Company, 115 F.3d 230, 233 (3d. Cir. 1997). In addition, a Plaintiff must demonstrate bad faith by clear and convincing evidence. Polselli v. Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company, 23 F.3d 747, 751 (3d. Cir. 1994). For an insurance company to show that it had a reasonable basis to deny or delay paying a claim it need not demonstrate that its investigation yielded the correct conclusion, or that its conclusion more likely than not was accurate. Krisa v. Equitable Life Assurance Company, 113 F.Supp 2d. 694, 704 (M.D.Pa. 2000). The insurance company is not required to show that ‘the process by which it reached its conclusion was flawless or that the investigatory methods it employed eliminated possibilities at odds with its conclusion.’ Id. Instead, an insurance company must show that it conducted a review or investigation sufficiently thorough to yield a reasonable foundation for its action. Id. ‘The ‘clear and convincing’ standard requires that the Plaintiff show ‘that the evidence is so clear, direct, weighty and convincing as to enable a clear conviction without hesitation, about whether or not the defendants acted in bad faith,’  citing J.C. Penney Life Insurance Company v. Pilosi, 393 F.3d 356, 367 (3d. Cir. 2004)…. In short, Plaintiffs’ failure to perform their reporting duty under the contract impeded, wittingly or unwittingly, [the insurer’s] investigation of their claim. Thus, the delay in payment for the value of their personal property was a direct result of Plaintiffs’ failure to perform their contractual duties and, as such, may not serve as an appropriate basis for a finding of bad faith on Defendant’s part. Stated another way, Plaintiffs may not now seek to profit due to their lack of action.”

Turner v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 3:15-CV-906, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81922 (M.D. Pa. May 30, 2017) (Conaboy, J.)

 

 

Reservation of Rights Letters: Lack of Specificity Proves Fatal To CGL Insurer In South Carolina

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – Law360.com recently featured the South Carolina Supreme Court Ruling in Harleysville Group Insurance vs. Heritage Communities Inc. as one of the five most important but potentially overlooked insurance rulings in the first quarter of this year.  The Harleysville case points up  the peril insurers face for issuing general, non-specific reservations of rights letter.

In Harleysville, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that a reservation of rights letter which did not clearly state why a carrier believed a CGL policy may not provide coverage for a loss could bind the insurer to cover the loss.  The  Court affirmed a special referee’s decision that Harleysville was obligated to insure a prorated share of large verdicts entered against developers of two Myrtle Beach condominium complexes for a series of construction defect cases.

Harleysville agreed to defend the developer,  Heritage Communities Inc. and related companies in the underlying litigation under the CGL policies, but issued several reservation of rights letters during the defense which were used later to question the insurer’s coverage obligations.    A special referee ruled that the insurer had failed to properly reserve its right to dispute coverage for the actual damages verdicts against Heritage because the letters included only “generic denials of coverage” accompanied by verbatim copies of policy provisions.

The South Carolina high court agreed  that the reservations of rights letters were insufficient, as they did not adequately place the insureds on notice  of the insurer’s specific concerns and arguments against coverage.  Writing for the Court, Justice John W. Kittredge held:

“It is axiomatic that an insured must be provided sufficient information to understand the reasons the insurer believes the policy may not provide coverage…At the hearing before the Special Referee, Harleysville produced letters it sent to former Heritage principals and counsel between December 2003 and February 2004. These letters explained that Harleysville would provide a defense in the underlying suits and listed the name and contact information for the defense attorney Harleysville had selected to represent Heritage in each matter. These letters identify the particular insured entity and lawsuit at issue, summarize the allegations in the complaint, and identify the policy numbers and policy periods for policies that potentially provided coverage. Additionally, each of these letters (through a cut-and-paste approach) incorporated a nine- or ten-page excerpt of various policy terms, including the provisions relating to the insuring agreement,  Harleysville’s duty to defend, and numerous policy exclusions and definitions. Despite these policy references, the letters included no discussion of Harleysville’s position as to the various provisions or explanation of its reasons for relying thereon. With the exception of the claim for punitive damages, the letters failed to specify the particular grounds upon which Harleysville did, or might thereafter, dispute coverage… Here, except as to punitive damages, Harleysville’s reservation letters gave no express reservation or other indication that it disputed coverage for any specific portion or type of damages.”

(emphasis added).  Justice Kittredge went out to point out, for example, that Harleysville did not identify the basis on which it intended to contest that no “occurrence” took place, as defined in the policy.  On that basis, the Court affirmed the referee’s finding that Harleysville could not contest coverage under the CGL policies based on the reservation of rights letters it issued.

Editor’s Note:  The obvious takeaway here is that insurers should not skimp when it comes to the drafting of reservation of rights letters.  The better practice is to have inside or outside counsel prepare specific reservation letters as part of the coverage analysis or coverage opinion, if and when reservation letters are indicated. 

This ruling cautions against any conventional view that reservation of rights letters are merely “cookie cutter” documents that can be generated primarily by word processors.  Reservation of rights form letters may be used as a starting point, but never an ending point — the letters must ultimately contain specific gounds supporting any reserved claim, and wherever possible include citation to facts and information tending to suggest a reasonable dispute as to the terms of the policy on which reservation is being made.  CJH

Harleysville Group Ins. v. Heritage Communities, Inc., No. 2013-001291 (South Carolina, 2017)

Re-Purposing The Free Initial Consultation For The Benefit of Insurers and Corporate Clients

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Alternative fee arrangements are out of the bag by now.  They are being tried and used by insurers as part of ongoing efforts to bring cost-certainty to outside legal fees.  Badfaithadvisor.com has a complete survey of alternative fee options here.

But that is not the end of the leverage in favor of  insurers and corporate clients.  And to that end,  I am going to let you all in on a very big secret.  Not only that, I am going to invite — no — I’m going to dare, you to take advantage of it, and here it is:   I would rather my clients and prospects talk to me for free about matters of concern to them ,  than to let them  talk to any of my competitors.  Under any terms.

And so, the free initial consultation, long a staple of the plaintiff’s bar, has been co-opted and re-purposed for my insurance company and other corporate clients.

Insurance and corporate clients, and prospective clients who are interested in testing the waters, are given  free initial consultations of anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours (and sometimes more)  to review documents, and to discuss cases they are considering assigning to outside counsel.  But I offer the same thing to the same clients and the same prospects who are actually looking to AVOID sending a matter to outside counsel, too.  This provides value to them in the form of an informal first or second opinion which will give them early clarity on a matter, and peace of mind on potential action plans for handling those claims or matters.

The free initial document review / consultation is a win – win for clients and prospects.  If they do decide to retain me, on either en alternative or conventional fee basis, they have familiarized me with the matter they will be assigning and brought me up to speed at no cost to them, thereby reducing their overall legal expense on the matter.   If they decide to keep the matter in-house, they have received the value of an outside look for free, and I have hopefully created good will my clients will remember when the next matter comes up for consideration.

There are and will always be major coverage matters and bet-the-company litigation which insurers and corporate clients on which clients will seek outside representation.  Free initial consultations on both these matters and matters which clients never assign to outside counsel is another way to provide value to clients in business environments encouraging the limitation and reduction of outside legal expense.

C.J. Haddick

Water, Water Everywhere: Water Damage Exclusion Bars Coverage, Florida Judge Rules

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MIAMI, March 28 — A commercial property insurance policy’s water exclusion barred recovery for water related damage and  repair costs arising from a backed up pipe, a Florida judge has ruled.

In Ken Cameron and Michelle Cameron v. Scottsdale Insurance Co., No. 16-21704, S.D. Fla., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45474, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke  granted Scottsdale’s motion for summary judgment in a coverage suit filed by the Camerons.  Scottsdale had previously denied coverage on a claim the Camerons made under a commercial property policy insuring their apartment complex after a pipe collapsed in the internal plumbing system and caused water and property damage.

Ken and Michelle Cameron originally filed suit in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court for Miami-Dade County, Fla., against Scottsdale Insurance Co., seeking a declaration that coverage was owed for water damage which occurred on one of their apartment properties. Scottsdale removed the action to federal court, and after losing an initial motion to dismiss, prevailed on a motion for summary judgment.

According to the suit, a  plumber found an “acute pipe failure” when the pipe collapsed.  Scottsdale denied coverage pursuant to an exclusion  for water – related losses.   Scottsdale argued that the policy in question did not cover damage from water originating from a drain.  The exclusion applied to  “water that backs up or overflows or is otherwise discharged from a sewer, drain, sump, sump pump or related equipment.”

The Camerons opposed the summary judgment motion claiming that the exclusion applied only to water backups or overflows deriving outside their property’s premises.
Judge Cooke held that the policy contained no definition of “drain” but that the term ordinarily refers to a “conduit for draining liquid, as a ditch or a pipe.”  She further held:

“Though the parties dispute whether the collapsed pipe was a ‘sewer’ and refer to the pipe by different names—a ‘sewer line’ for Respondent, a ‘sanitary line’ for Petitioners—it was, at the very least, a ‘drain.’  Parties do not seriously dispute this point or that there was a back up and overflow from the pipe.  More importantly, the [water exclusion] does not differentiate between drains found inside or outside the Petitioners’ property line or their plumbing system.  By its very terms, then, the [water exclusion] bars payment for the water damage and other repairs stemming from the Petitioners’ collapsed and backed up pipe… Because I find the [water exclusion] bars recovery for Petitioners in this case, it is unnecessary to analyze the other Policy provisions parties raise.  The lack of coverage for underground pipe damage is inconsequential, since it does not cover any purported water damage Petitioners allege.  The water damage exception does not impinge on the [water exclusion], as discussed above.  And I need not analyze the deterioration exclusion since the [water exclusion] undergirds my decision.”

Ken Cameron and Michelle Cameron v. Scottsdale Insurance Co., No. 16-21704, S.D. Fla., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45474

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.