State Auto Had Reasonable Basis To Deny Pipe Burst Claim, Federal Court Rules; Contract and Bad Faith Claims Dismissed

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PITTSBURGH, Oct. 11 – A federal judge has ruled that State Auto Insurance Company was entitled to summary judgment on breach of contract and bad faith claims arising out of a water loss because the insureds violated a continuous occupation provision contained in their homeowners policy.

In Gerow v. State Auto, U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson found that State Auto was not liable to pay the water loss claim, and it could also therefore not be liable for acting in bad faith toward the insured plaintiffs in the case.  The case was originally filed in Pa. state court but removed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pa.

On January 16, 2016, the Gerows suffered a pipe burst water loss at the insured premises, insured by State Auto.  State Auto denied the claim, however, pursuant to an investigation which determined that the house in question was not occupied at the time of the loss,  in violation of the terms of subject homeowners policy which required continuous occupancy.  After State Auto denied the claim, the insureds filed breach of contract and bad faith claims against the insurer.  After the case was removed to federal court, the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment as to both claims.

Judge Gibson found that the insureds did not meet the continuous residency  condition of the policy, and that State Auto had not waived the provision.  He therefore granted summary judgment on the coverage claim to State Auto.

The insureds argued they could still maintain a bad faith action against the insurer however, claiming that State Auto erroneously advised them to seek water remediation and then denied coverage, and failed to inform them that they were not complying with the residency requirement.

Judge Gibson dismissed these arguments, however, after employing the traditional Pennsylvania two part bad faith test — whether the insurer’s position lacked a reasonable basis, and whether it knew or recklessly disregarded the lack of basis.  Judge Gibson wrote that State Auto:

“clearly had a reasonable basis for denying coverage for the Subject Loss: the Policy required Plaintiffs to reside at the Subject Property, and Defendant concluded, after an investigation, that Plaintiffs did not reside there, a conclusion with which this Court agrees…[Therefore, State Auto] could not have known or recklessly disregarded a lack of reasonable basis.”

Judge Gibson also relied in part on a prior Western District ruling which precluded a bad faith claim from proceeding when a lack of coverage was found.

Gerow v. State Auto Prop. & Cas. Co., U. S. District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Case No. 3:17-cv-203, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 175007 (W.D. Pa. Oct. 11, 2018) (Gibson, J.)

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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