CGL POLICY COVERING ATTORNEY’S FEES IN PROPERTY DAMAGE CLAIMS

shutterstock_195189626Does a CGL policy cover attorney’s fees and costs in property damages claims, to the extent there is a contractual or statutory basis to recover attorney’s fees? Naturally, you need to review the policies and this is not a clear-cut issue, but there is law to argue under.  

 

A case I have argued in support of CGL policies providing for coverage for attorney’s fees as a component of property damage claims when there is a contractual or statutory basis is Assurance Co. of America v. Lucas Waterproofing Co., Inc., 581 F.Supp.2d 1201 (S.D.Fla. 2008).  In this case, the following applied:

 

-The policy provided coverage for “those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages of… ‘property damage’….

- Property damage was defined as “physical injury to tangible property, including all resulting loss of use of that property.”

-The term damage, in of itself, was not defined in the policy.

 

The trial court looked at whether  attorneys’ fees and costs are damages arising because of ‘property damage’ to which the insurance policy at issue applies.  

 

If an insurer may defend against a claim that is covered by the policy without taking into account potential attorneys’ fees and costs that will be awarded if the opposing party prevails, the insurer creates an externality whereby, in the course of seeking to minimize its own liability, it imposes potential costs on the insured at no additional cost to itself.  This externality undermines the very reason why an insurer can at once possess a duty and a right to defend, which is that the interests of the insured and the insurer are presumed to be aligned with respect to a claim for damages covered by the policy.  Every dollar of liability for a covered claim for which the insured cannot be held liable is a dollar saved by the insurance company.  If, however, when defending against a claim that is covered by the policy, an insurer can increase the liability of the insured while simultaneously decreasing its own liability, the interests of the insurer and insured are no longer aligned, giving rise to a conflict between the insurer and insured and making the coexistence of the right and duty to defend untenable. 

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Therefore, this Court finds that attorneys’ fees and costs that an insured becomes obligated to pay because of a contractual or statutory provision, which are attributable to an insurer’s duty to defend the insured against claims that would be covered by the policy if the claimant prevails, constitute damages because of ‘property damage” within the meaning of a CGL policy.

Assurance Co. of America, 581 F.Supp.2d at 1214-15. 

 

In July of 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion in Association of Apartment Owners of Moorings, Inc. v. Dongbu Insurance Co., Ltd., 731 Fed.Appx. 713 (9thCir. 2018). The issue on appeal was whether the liability insurer was required to indemnify its insured for attorneys’ fees its insured was ordered to pay against a third-party that prevailed on a water damage claim.  Similar to above, the policy did not define the term “damage” and the Ninth Circuit explained:

 

The policy provides coverage for damages Moorings [insured] must pay “because of” covered property damage.  This phrase, which is undefined, connotes a non-exacting causation requirement whereby any award of damages that flows from covered property damage is covered, unless otherwise excluded.  The Bradens [third-party claimant] were awarded fees…because their home incurred water damage, and they incurred additional loss in order to recover for this damage.  The fee award is thus properly considered an award of damages that Moorings must pay “because of” that covered property damage and is not otherwise excluded. 

Association of Apartment Owners of Moorings, Inc., 731 Fed.Appx. at 714.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

INDEMNIFICATION PROVISIONS DO NOT CREATE RECIPROCAL ATTORNEY’S FEES PROVISIONS

shutterstock_121868692In a good, recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit in International Fidelity Insurance Co. v. Americabe-Moriarity, JV, 2018 WL 5306683 (11th Cir. 2018), held that Florida Statute s. 57.105(7) cannot be used to shift attorney’s fees in a contractual indemnification clause in a dispute between a general contractor and subcontractor’s performance bond surety, when the dispute does not involve an actual indemnification claim stemming from a third-party.

 

In this case, a prime contractor terminated a subcontractor and looked to the subcontractor’s performance bond surety to pay for the completion work.  The subcontractor had a standard AIA A312 performance bond that requires the prime contractor to comply with the terms of the bond, as well as the incorporated subcontract, in order to trigger the surety’s obligations under the bond.  The surety filed an action for declaratory relief against the prime contractor arguing that the prime contractor breached the terms of the performance bond through non-compliance thereby discharging the surety’s obligations.  The trial court agreed and the surety moved for attorney’s fees. 

 

The surety’s argument for attorney’s fees was threefold: (1) the indemnification provision requiring the subcontractor to indemnify the prime contractor required the subcontractor to indemnify the prime contractor for, among other things, attorney’s fees; (2) Florida Statute s. 57.105(7) provides that one-sided contractual attorney’s fees provisions must apply to both parties (and treated reciprocally), hence the inclusion of attorney’s fees in the indemnification provision means that the surety should be entitled to attorney’s fees; and (3) since the subcontract was incorporated into the performance bond, the surety should be entitled to attorney’s fees since it steps in the shoes of the subcontractor under principles of surety law.

 

Surprisingly, the trial court agreed with the surety.  However, thankfully, the Eleventh Circuit held that the indemnity provision in the subcontract was an indemnity clause that applies only to third-party claims and not suits between the general contractor and subcontractor.  Thus, the requirement of reciprocity for attorney’s fees provisions pursuant to Florida Statute s. 57.105 does not apply.  The Eleventh Circuit, however, did not enter a ruling as to whether even if s. 57.105 did apply such that attorney’s fees must be reciprocal in an indemnification clause, whether such rationale would allow the performance bond surety to recover attorney’s fees under principles of surety law. 

 

This decision is useful for a few reasons:

 

(1)  If a contractor, subcontractor, etc. is trying to create an argument for attorney’s fees based on an indemnification clause, this decision is helpful to put that issue to bed since the indemnification provision applies in the context of third-party claims, and is not related to independent claims between the contracting parties;

(2) A party looking to take advantage of a performance bond must, and I mean, must, make sure to properly comply with the terms of the bond.  Certain sureties will raise any argument to avoid obligations under a performance bond hoping that the beneficiary of the bond undertakes an act that allows the surety to discharge its obligations; and

(3) General (prime) contractors should explore subcontractor default insurance, which is a first-party insurance policy, as an alternative to performance bonds to avoid the issues associated with delays and other arguments a surety may raise in furtherance of avoiding obligations under the bond.

 

 

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.

 

PRE-SUIT SETTLEMENT OFFERS AND CONSTRUCTION LIEN ACTIONS

shutterstock_127849640It is unfortunate, but in certain matters, a construction lien foreclosure action is not actually driven by the principal amount in dispute.  Oh no.  Rather, it is driven by attorney’s fees.  That’s right.  Attorney’s fees. This is true even though Florida applies the significant issues test to determine the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees.  However, oftentimes  the prospect of attorney’s fees is enough for parties to fear that exposure. 

 

There is a 1985 Florida Supreme Court case that I like to cite if applicable, C.U. Associates, Inc. v. R.B. Grove, Inc., 472 So.2d 1177, 1179 (Fla. 1985), that finds, “in order to be a prevailing party entitled to the award of attorney’s fees pursuant to section 713.29 [a construction lien claim], a litigant must have recovered an amount exceeding that which was earlier offered in settlement of the claim.”  Accord Sullivan v. Galske, 917 So.2d 412 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (explaining that although contractor is receiving a judgment in his favor, he may not be the prevailing party if the homeowner offered to settle prior to the lawsuit for an amount equal to or greater  than the award in the judgment).

 

If there is a pre-suit settlement offer on the table, and it is a good faith offer (which presumably it is), than that offer can very well come into play to determine whether the party that will the action should be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees.  This is still good law.  Therefore, before readily dismissing a pre-suit offer, consider the potential ramifications if you are unable to beat this offer at trial. Banking on attorney’s fees may not be prudent if there is a pre-suit offer that is within striking distance from where you need to be or can very well be a likely outcome based on a reasonable argument raised by the opposing party.

 

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.

 

RECEIVING A $0 VERDICT AND STILL BEING DEEMED THE PREVAILING PARTY FOR PURPOSES OF ATTORNEY’S FEES

shutterstock_336450779Low and behold, a party can be the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees even if that party is awarded $0.  That’s right, even if the party is awarded a big fat zero, they can still be the prevailing party for purposes of being entitled to attorney’s fees.   This is because a party is the prevailing party if they prevail on the significant issues in the case.  A party can prevail on the significant issues even if that party is awarded $0. Whoa!

 

For example, in Coconut Key Homeowner’s Association, Inc. v. Gonzalez, 43 Fla.L.Weekly D1045a (Fla. 4th DCA 2018), a homeowner sued her homeowner’s association claiming the association breached its governing documents. There was a basis for fees under Florida’s homeowner’s association law (and there likely was a basis under the governing documents).  At trial, the jury held that the association breached its governing documents, but awarded the homeowner nothing ($0). The trial court also issued injunctive relief in favor of the homeowner.  The homeowner claimed she should be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees; however, this was denied by the trial court  based on the $0 verdict and no fees were awarded to the homeowner.

 

On appeal, however, the Fourth District took a different stance.  The Court, relying on other Florida appellate decisions, maintained that the homeowner could be deemed the prevailing party despite receiving no monetary award:

 

While the prevailing party determination does not depend solely on the magnitude of relief Gonzalez [homeowner] obtained, she was required, at the least, to secure some relief on the merits of her claim to achieve such status. “ [P]laintiffs may be considered a ‘prevailing party’ for attorney’s fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.’ ”  Although there is ongoing debate in the courts on whether a plaintiff who recovers no money damages can be a prevailing party, a party who receives affirmative judicial or equitable relief is clearly considered a prevailing party under the law. Gonzalez was indisputably a prevailing party on her injunctive claim in equity, regardless of her marginal victory on the breach count. Thus, prevailing party attorney fees should be awarded to Gonzalez in this dispute. 

Gonzalez, supra (internal citations omitted).

 

The Fourth District  justified declaring the homeowner the prevailing party because an injunction was also issued in her favor.  Hence, she did receive some benefit by bringing the suit even if she recovered no monetary damages.  However, even if the homeowner did not bring a claim for injunctive relief, it is highly likely the same result would have been reached by the Fourth District.  Since the jury found that the association breached the governing documents, the homeowner would have achieved some benefit in bringing the suit and, therefore, prevailed on the significant issues.  Gonzalez, supra (“When there is a prevailing party statute or contract, reasonable attorney fees must be awarded.”). 

 

As of now, it is uncertain how this would be reconciled with the significant issues test to determine the prevailing party in a construction lien action.  Case law has held that a court has discretion to determine no party is the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees in a construction lien action.  Putting this aside, however, this holding should apply to breach of contract cases and to other potential statutory claims that afford a basis for attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. Despite a party receiving no monetary award, they may still be deemed the prevailing party for purposes of attorney’s fees if they prevail on the significant issues in the case (e.g., the jury determined the other party committed a breach). 

 

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.