Insurer Owed Duty to Defend When Self-Insured Retention Provision Expressly Applied Only to Indemnity Obligation

CON BLOG_contractorsA recent California Court of Appeal, Fourth District case held that an insurer was obligated to defend its insured immediately, despite the fact the insured had not satisfied a $250,000 self-insured retention (SIR) because the SIR provision applied only to the insurer’s indemnity obligation.  The case, American Safety Indemnity Co. v. Admiral Insurance Co., Case No. D061587 (Super. Ct. No. 37-2010-00092157-CU-IC-CTL), arose from a construction defect action filed against the developer by numerous homeowners in Santa Clarita.

The ruling was based on the specific language in the subject insurance policy, which stated that the SIR provision limited the insurer’s duty to pay “damages” only and did not mention its duty to defend.  As such, under that language, the court found that the insurer had an immediate duty to defend.

For an in-depth discussion and analysis of this case, please click here.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Kansas City District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

SB652 Changes Disclosure Requirements for Homeowners Involved in Construction Defect Claims

Effective July 1, 2014, the Real Estate Transfer Disclosure Statement (TDS) will be revised to require disclosure of whether a seller of residential property is aware of certain construction claims under SB800 (California Civil Code Section 895, et seq.).  SB652, which was signed into law on Sept. 30, 2013, amends question 16 of Section 11C of the current TDS to inquire as to whether the seller is aware of any of the following claims threatening to or affecting the real property:  (1) claims for damage by the seller based on construction defects under Cal. Civil Code Sections 910 and 914; (2) claims for breach of warranty under Cal. Civil Code Section 900; or (3) claims for breach of an enhanced protection agreement under Cal. Civil Code Section 903, including any lawsuits or claims for damage under Section 910 or 914 alleging a defect of deficiency in the real property or common areas.

With the greatly enhanced and specified disclosures that will be included in the new TDS, homeowners who become involved in construction defect actions are likely to take a greater interest in the claims asserted by their attorneys and experts.  The now common practice for plaintiffs in construction defect cases of producing over-inclusive CON BLOG_home builddefect reports to increase the potential value of the claim will need to be re-evaluated as homeowners become concerned that they will be required to disclose these aggressive claims as part of any future sale.  This likely will have the greatest effect on claims that have become time-barred pursuant to various statutes of limitations set forth in SB800.  Currently, many plaintiffs’ attorneys include claims that may be time-barred, such as acoustical claims, as an avenue to increase the overall claim value.  However, once they understand that these claims rarely succeed and, as a result, repairs to address them do not occur, homeowners will be less likely to approve making such claims because they would need to disclose them to future buyers and explain why the repairs were not made.

While initially it may appear that these changes to the TDS would curb frivolous and over-exaggerated construction defect claims, the actual result may be vastly different.  If homeowners understand that they must disclose every claim made, it may become increasingly difficult to resolve many defect cases where the initial claims were significantly overstated.  Homeowners may be less willing to compromise knowing that regardless of how the case resolves, they will still be required to disclose all the claims made.  While this ultimately is a client control issue for plaintiffs’ attorneys, it affects the way defense attorneys approach and evaluate these cases on a go forward basis.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys will need to educate their clients as to these new requirements so that they can make educated decisions about how to pursue potential defect claims.  Attorneys may ask homeowners to sign agreements stating that they have read and understand the defect reports and understand that they will need to disclose these claims to future buyers.  Not only will this protect the attorney from potential future claims by the homeowners, but it will force the homeowners to make early decisions about what claims are truly important to them.   While the actual impact of SB 652 is yet to be seen, one thing that is certain is that educated homeowners will have a bigger say in what defect claims they choose to make as well as how those claims are presented.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Great Valley Center

Concern Over Green Building Claims Causing Many to Revisit Risk Management Procedures

While green building claims have yet to materialize in any significant fashion, the insurance industry is bracing itself for what it believes will be the inevitable onslaught of green claims over the next five to ten years.

Green building claims are generally economic in nature with a lack of “damages” that would be covered under traditional commercial general liability policies.  To date, the focus has been on claims arising from failure of projects to achieve certain levels of certification under programs such as LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) or Build It Green, and the damages that may flow from such failures such as loss of tax credits, reputation repair, and delays.  For the most part, these types of claims were not covered by traditional insurance policies and there has been little in the way of development of new policies to address such claims.

Now, the focus has shifted away from these types of claims to focus more on claims related to functionality of the building as it relates to the promised or mandatory standards.  For instance, on net zero projects (i.e. projects that CON BLOG_solar panelsuse renewable energy only and do not require purchase of energy from the grid), what happens when an owner looks at its operating costs after the building has been commissioned for three years and determines that the building is not operating at net zero, but in fact is purchasing energy to meet its needs?  A similar analysis could be used for water use and efficiency of building systems such as HVAC systems.  A driving force behind the green building movement is the economic advantages that green buildings offer owners, and part of that benefit comes from smaller operating costs due to the use of efficient and sustainable systems.  If those systems are not functioning as designed and/or promised, the result is added costs for the owner, which in legal terms means damages.

After speaking on this very subject at a recent construction industry conference held by Axis Consulting and Construction in San Francisco, it was clear that the construction industry is now focusing its attention on these types of claims as the next wave of construction-related claims.  On their own, these claims are not appealing to plaintiffs’ attorneys as they are mostly economic in nature and therefore insurance is generally is not available.  However, when included in traditional construction defect matters, claims such as these can increase the potential value of a claim tremendously and put pressure on parties to resolve matters for a value greater than it otherwise would have.

As plaintiffs’ counsel become more knowledgeable about these types of potential claims, they likely will become a mainstay in construction cases in California involving projects constructed after 2011 (the introduction of CalGreen to Title 24) or projects that are LEED certified or required to be LEED equivalent.  This will lead to coverage disputes with carriers, as well as potential personal exposure for insureds for noncovered claims.  However, with pressure by insureds to resolve claims within policy limits, and potential exposure for bad faith, the ultimate result of the inclusion of green claims will be higher than normal settlements for plaintiffs.

Image courtesy of Flickr by U.S. Army Environmental Command