Last year, I wrote an article published in Engineering News Record entitled “Understanding Insurance: A ‘Must” for Every Construction Professional.” In that article, I discussed how my thinking about construction insurance issues has been forced to evolve from my days in the 1980s as a construction project engineer and project manager, up to an including my role today advising clients on construction issues. My theme was that contractor’s insurance is no longer a “one size fits all” item, and that construction professionals, in addition to understanding labor, materials, equipment and scheduling, have to now be passably fluent in insurance, too.
Illustrative of my point is Delean’s Tile & Marble v. American States Insurance, approved for publication last week by Division I of the Washington Supreme Court. In that case, a general contractor was engaged to perform repairs on a condo project after the original developer settled with the Homeowner’s Association over claims for defects in the original construction. The general, in turn, hired a subcontractor to perform some of the repair work, which it apparently did not do well. When the subcontractor refused to fix its allegedly flawed work, the general hired a replacement subcontractor and made a claim against the original sub under the terms of their subcontract that required the sub to indemnify the general. The dispute resulted in a lawsuit.
The insurer provided a defense to the subcontractor, and represented the sub throughout the proceedings, up to and including the time that the sub settled with the general for something north of $150,000. However, the insurer refused to pay the settlement amount, and began a declaratory action, seeking a ruling from the court that no coverage for the settlement amount was available, even though the general was an “additional insured” under the requirements of the subcontract.
The general also filed a claim with the sub’s comprehensive general liability insurance carrier, asserting that it has been named an “additional insured” under that policy pursuant to the requirements of the subcontract. Obviously, if unable to obtain indemnity for its damages from the original subcontractor, the general contractor was expecting the insurer to pick up the tab for the defects in the sub’s work. However, the insurer denied the claim, asserting that the multifamily exclusion in the sub’s policy precluded coverage.
The general had the defective work repaired at a total cost (including attorney’s fees) of more than $170,000, and sued the sub. Eventually, the general obtained a judgment against the sub (presumably under the indemnity provision of the subcontract) in that action. The sub was defended by its insurer under a reservation of rights in that action.
However, before the judgment was entered against the sub, the insurer began a suit of its own—a declaratory action asking the court to determine that there was no insurance coverage under its policy from which the general (or the homeowners) could recover. Each party filed a motion for summary judgment in the declaratory action, and the court ruled that the multi-family exclusion barred a recovery from the insurer for the damages associated with the sub’s work, and that the general was entitled to no defense against the homeowner’s actions against it., And, all because of the multi-family exclusion.
On appeal the Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting the general’s attempts to parse the definitions in the policy upon which the insurer relied, repeatedly holding that those attempts “lacked merit.” Marching through the general’s assertions one by one, the Court of Appeals provided either definitions from the policy itself or common usage of the terms on which the general (unsuccessfully) relied to attempt to avoid the multi-family exclusion.
Gone are the days when receiving the Accord form “evidence of insurance” was enough to check off that requirement from a subcontractor. The enormous condominium litigation industry that has evolved over the past 15 or so years has prompted nearly every CGL carrier to exclude multi-family construction from its contractor policies. In fact, these exclusions are what has given rise to the “wrap up” and “Owner Controlled Insurance Plans” (OCIP) we see on nearly every condo project built over the last several years.
We now all expect that original condo or apartment construction will have some version of an OCIP these days. What’s interesting about Delean’s, however, is that it is not about the original construction of a condo, it’s about the second-tier repair construction to a condo. Yet, the same lessons with regard to the availability of multi-family insurance apply. Moreover, it’s highly possible that whichever sub repaired the Delean’s sub’s bad work had a similar exclusion in its policy, and the specter exists that the pattern of no coverage for defects might just continue.
Insurance literacy then involves more than just getting an Accord form in the mail, seeing that your company has been named as an “additional insured,” and filing that piece of paper. Literacy today requires not only an understanding that the insurance exists, but of what it consists, and perhaps more importantly, what is excluded from it. General contractors who work on any aspect of multi-family projects, including in particular the repairs being made after the first round of litigation, would do well to include a requirement in the insurance portion of their subcontracts that the sub must provide insurance for the type of project on which it’s working, either by providing a policy with no multi-family exclusion, or by paying for a rider to the base policy that covers all aspects of the project in question.