WHAT TRIGGERS A LIABILITY INSURER’S DUTY TO DEFEND

acParties in construction absolutely need to understand what triggers the duty of a liability insurer to defend a lawsuit. This needs to be understood not only by the insured-party being sued, but by the entity suing the insured-party. A liability insurer’s duty to defend its insured in a lawsuit is broader than its duty to indemnity its insuredKeen v. Florida Sheriff’s Self-Insurance, 962 So.2d 1021, 1024 (Fla. 4th DCA 2007). The duty to defend is based on allegations in the complaint if the allegations potentially bring the claim within the policy’s coverageId.; Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mut. Ins. Co. v. Indiana Lumbermens Mut. Ins. Co., 43 So.3d 182, 186 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010). “Once the insurer’s duty to defend arises [based on the allegations in the underlying complaint], it continues throughout the case unless it is made to appear by the pleadings that the claims giving rise to coverage have been eliminated from the suit.”  Pennsylvania Lumbermens, 43 So.3d at 186 quoting Baron’s Oil Co. v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 470 So.2d 810, 815 (Fla. 1st DCA 1985).

 

The recent opinion in Nationwide Mutual Fire Ins. Co. v. Advanced Cooling and Heating, Inc., 38 Fla. L. Weekly D2256a (Fla. 4th DCA 2013), demonstrates an insurer denying the duty to defend because the allegations against the insured did not potentially fall within the policy’s coverage. In this case, a service HVAC contractor was contacted because of a residential owner’s problem with an existing air conditioning system. The owner agreed to pay the HVAC contractor to install a new compressor. However, after the compressor was installed, the owner realized this did not cure his air conditioning problems and decided to stop the payment to the contractor. The HVAC contractor sued the owner and the owner counterclaimed asserting that the HVAC contractor breached the contract by failing to properly inspect his air conditioning system which resulted in unnecessary repair. The HVAC contractor tendered the counterclaim to its CGL carrier to defend it; the insurer denied coverage since the allegations in the complaint did not potentially trigger policy coverage.

 

The HVAC contractor retained counsel and successfully prevailed against the owner’s counterclaim. It also filed a lawsuit against its CGL insurer for a declaratory judgment that its insurer had a duty to defend it. The trial court agreed with the HVAC contractor and awarded fees and costs against the insurer pursuant to Florida Statute 627.428. (This statute allows for an insured to recover its attorneys’ fees and costs if it obtains a judgment against its insurer.)

 

The Fourth District, on appeal, reversed finding that the insurer did not have a duty to defend based on the owner’s allegations in the complaint. As the Fourth District found: “The [CGL] insurance policy issued to Advanced [insured-contractor] covers “bodily injury” or “properly damage” resulting from an “occurrence” pursuant to the policy definitions. The [residential owner’s] breach of contract claim alleges only that an improper or unneeded repair resulted in an unnecessary $438 expense to the customer. There are no allegations of bodily injury or property damage at all.”  Advanced Cooling and Heating, supra.

 

The insured-contractor tried to argue that the residential owner claimed that it installed the compressor in an unworkmanlike manner that caused a leak in the air conditioning system that damaged the compressor. However, the Fourth District shot this down because damage to the compressor or the air conditioning system was not resulting damage or property damage other than the property being repaired.

 

Liability insurance is not designed to cover the insured’s defective work or damage to the insured’s work caused by the insured. In the residential owner’s underlying claim, there was not personal injury or property damage resulting from the service HVAC contractor’s work. Understanding the duty of a liability insurer to defend a lawsuit should be important to any plaintiff seeking insurance coverage to pay for damage. Likewise, it is important to the insured-contractor that expects or wants its insurer to defend it in what can be a costly litigation.

 

For more information on liability insurance coverage, please see http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/cgl-policies-and-the-importance-of-couching-the-claim-to-the-insurer/

 

Please contact David Adelstein at dadelstein@gmail.com or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.