LIABILITY INSURER PRECLUDED FROM INTERVENING IN INSURED’S LAWSUIT

shutterstock_368505233There are cases where I honestly do no fully understand the insurer’s position because it cannot have its cake and eat it too.  The recent opinion in Houston Specialty Insurance Company v. Vaughn, 43 Fla. L. Weekly D1828a (Fla. 2d DCA 2018) is one of those cases because on one hand it tried hard to disclaim coverage and on the other hand tried to intervene in the underlying suit where it was not a named party.

 

This case dealt with a personal injury dispute where a laborer for a pressure washing company fell off of a roof and became a paraplegic.  The injured person sued the pressure washing company and its representatives.  The company and representatives tendered the case to its general liability insurer and the insurer–although it provided a defense under a reservation of rights—filed a separate action for declaratory relief based on an exclusion in the general liability policy that excluded coverage for the pressure washing company’s employees (because the general liability policy is not a workers compensation policy).   This is known as the employer’s liability exclusion that excludes coverage for bodily injury to an employee.  The insurer’s declaratory relief action sought a declaration that there was no coverage because the injured laborer was an employee of the pressure washing company.  The pressure washing company claimed he was an independent contractor, in which the policy did provide limited coverage pursuant to an endorsement.

 

The insurer also moved to intervene in the underlying action for the purpose of getting special interrogatories on the verdict form relative to the injured plaintiff’s employment status.  The pressure washing company objected because they did NOT want to inflate the damages by having the jury learn that insurance was involved, thereby prejudicing it, particularly if it was determined that there was no insurance coverage.  You cannot blame the insured in this instance, particularly because the injured plaintiff was probably all for having the insurer intervene so that the jury learned about the insured’s insurance. 

 

While the trial court granted the motion to intervene, after a number of events occurred (not discussed here), the trial court ultimately dismissed the intervention. The insurer appealed.

 

The appellate court affirmed the denial / dismissal of the insurer’s intervention in the underlying action.  The bottom line is that the insurer was not sued in the underlying action. It could not be sued by the injured plaintiff based on Florida’s non-joinder statute (Florida Statute 627.4136) that would prevent the injured plaintiff from suing the liability insurer directly until it gets a judgment against the insured.  Thus, the insurer had no direct and immediate interest in the dispute. Any judgment entered in the case would not be against the insurer—it would be entered against its insured.  Further, if the insured obtained a judgment and then sued the insurer, the insurer would not be deprived of appropriate legal defenses. 

 

As the appellate court explained, the insurer’s argument, if accepted, would be to eviscerate Florida’s non-joinder statute:

 

If the possibility of owing up to the policy limits based upon entry of an adverse judgment [against an insured] was itself a sufficient basis to allow intervention, insurers would be permitted the unhindered and unfettered opportunity to intervene in innumerable tort cases. That is exactly what Houston [insurer] wants; it seeks to interject itself directly into Mr. Vaughn’s [injured plaintiff’s] tort lawsuit. We cannot countenance such a result in light of the legislature’s intent [in Florida’s non-joinder statute] to prevent the introduction of such prejudicial information from being introduced to the jury.  After all, courts must continually be concerned that insurance coverage not be introduced to the jury because of its potential to adversely impact the issues of liability and damages. 

 

 

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.

 

DO NOT LET LACK OF NOTICE VOID YOUR INSURANCE COVERAGE

UnknownThe Southern District of Florida’s opinion in Pharm. D v. Founders Insurance Co., 2014 WL 32557844 (S.D.Fla. 2014) illustrates that absolute importance of notifying a liability insurer of a claim and a lawsuit; otherwise, coverage that would be afforded to an insured could be voided.  This should never occur!

 

In this matter, a water pipe ruptured and a fire occurred at the insured’s premises.  This resulted in damage to a pharmacy located below the insured’s premises.  Due to this damage, the pharmacy filed a lawsuit against the insured.  The insured failed to take any action in the lawsuit and a default judgment was entered against the insured for in excess of $500,000.

 

Years later, the (third party) pharmacy sued the insured’s CGL (commercial general liability) insurer to recover the amount of its default judgment against the insurer.  The insurer argued that coverage should be voided because its insured violated the terms of the policy.  Specifically, the insured had the obligation to notify the insurer of any claim or suit as soon as practicable and to send copies of any lawsuit to its insurer.  Apparently, the insured never did this and the insurer had no notice of the lawsuit.  The Southern District agreed with the insurer that the lack of notice voided coverage:

 

The insurance policy in question had a continuing notice obligation for a reason: the insured had the best information on legal action brought against it and, therefore, the insured was required to keep its insurer informed of developments. Accordingly, the insured had two distinct duties: (1) to notify Defendant [insurer] of any claims and (2) to notify Defendant of any lawsuits filed which may implicate the insurance policy.

***

The record shows there is no genuine dispute of material fact that the insured failed to notify Defendant of the state lawsuit and, thus, materially breached the insurance policy. As a matter of law, this breach absolved Defendant of its contractual requirement to defend in the state lawsuit and renders Defendant not liable on the default judgment entered in state court.”

Pharm. D, supra, at *3, *5.

 

The lesson learned from this matter is that if suing a party in which liability insurance is applicable (such as any case involving property damage or personal injury), take affirmative steps to ensure that the party’s liability insurer (CGL insurer) is notified of a claim and of the lawsuit.  Even if the party does not respond to the lawsuit, send a copy of the lawsuit to the party’s insurer.  Take steps to locate the insurer or the party’s insurance broker to ensure that proper notice is served and so that you are not relying on a potentially silent party to notify its insurer of a lawsuit (especially, when you are relying on insurance to cover your damages).  Clearly, in this matter, the insured-party did nothing despite having CGL coverage that perhaps would have covered some of the pharmacy’s damages.

 

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.

 

CONSTRUCTION DEFECT INSURANCE CONSIDERATIONS

images-1Construction defect cases most always involve CGL insurance consideration and claims. And they should. A contractor that received a defect claim from an owner (developer or association) will want to notify their CGL insurer to provide a defense and coverage. The contractor will also want to notify the responsible subcontractors that may be liable to the contractor for the owner’s claims as well as the subcontractors’ CGL carriers. The contractor will do so claiming the responsible subcontractor is responsible to indemnify the contractor for damage arising out of the subcontractor’s work pursuant to their contractual indemnification provision. The contractor will also claim that it is an additional insured under the subcontractor’s CGL policy (as required by the contract and hopefully confirmed by the additional insured endorsement) and the carrier is responsible for contributing to its defense and providing coverage for the negligence caused by the carrier’s insured-subcontractor.

 

The Middle District opinion in Redfish Keys Villas Condominium Association, Inc. v. Amerisure Insurance Co., 2014 WL 92710 (M.D.Fla. 2014), illustrates certain CGL considerations. In this dispute, a general contractor was hired by a developer to construct a condominium. After the condominium was turned over to the association, leaks were discovered. The association claimed the leaks originated from defects. The association sent a construction defects notice to the contractor (pursuant to Florida Statutes Chapter 558) and the contractor failed to respond. The association then filed suit against the contractor. For whatever reason, although the contractor’s counsel filed a notice of appearance in the case, nothing else was done and a final default judgment was entered against the contractor for the damages the association incurred in repairing the leaks.

 

After the judgment was obtained, the contractor’s CGL insurer reached out to the association, apparently not realizing a judgment had been entered against its insured. Upon receiving a copy of the judgment, the insurer denied coverage based on the contractor’s failure to provide notice of the claim to the insurer. However, although not discussed in the opinion, the insurer knew about the contractor’s claim as it was the one that followed-up with the association. Most likely, the association, as it should, notified the contractor’s carrier of the defect claims although it is uncertain whether they notified the carrier of the lawsuit. Or, perhaps, the contractor, as it should, notified its carrier when it received the construction defects notice from the association.

 

The association filed suit against the contractor’s insurer in federal court for a declaratory action and for the insurer’s breach of an intended third party beneficiary contract, that being the CGL insurance policy was for the benefit of third parties such as the association. The insurer moved to dismiss the breach of intended third party beneficiary contract claim. The Middle District denied the insurer’s motion to dismiss. The Middle District found that as a condition precedent to the association suing the insurer, the association needed to comply with Florida Statute s. 627.4136 which essentially requires a third party not insured by a liability insurer to first obtain a settlement or verdict against the insured as a condition precedent to suing the insurer for coverage under the policy. The association complied with this condition precedent as it sued the insured-contractor and obtained a judgment. The Middle District further found that in Florida, “an injured third party may maintain a cause of action against an insurer as an intended third party beneficiary under a liability insurance policy.” Redfish, supra, at *3 citing Shingleton v. Bussey, 223 So.2d 713 (Fla. 1969). In other words, the MIddle District found that as long as the association complied with Florida Statute s. 627.4136 (the condition precedent to a third party suing a liability insurer statute) it could maintain a breach of an intended third party beneficiary contract claim against the CGL insurer.

 

When representing the owner, it is good practice to notify the contractor’s insurer of not only the defect claim but of any potential lawsuit (to avoid any lack of notice coverage defense, especially if the contractor does not have an attorney on board at the time of the lawsuit). Further, when representing the contractor, it is good practice to not only notify the contractor’s CGL insurer, but to notify the responsible subcontractors’ carriers of the same (based on additional insured and indemnity requirements). And, irrespective of a subcontractor’s insurer’s position, it is good practice to keep the insurers apprised of any third party lawsuit the contractor files against the insured-subcontractors (again, to avoid any lack of notice coverage defense). While the Middle District in Redfish only entered a ruling on the insurer’s motion to dismiss at this stage, the insurer’s lack of notice coverage defense will certainly be a defense that the insurer relies on in the dispute.

 

Insurance considerations are a crucial part of construction defect claims. Understanding how to preserve rights and navigate through the process cannot be overstated.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

A CERTIFICATE OF INSURANCE IS NOT INSURANCE COVERAGE

4766970-tall-high-rise-urban-office-building-in-sydney-australiaOwners always want to see the certificate of insurance (“COI”) from the general contractor. The general contractor wants to see the COI from its subcontractors. Parties want to see the COI from an entity they are hiring to confirm they have applicable insurance (proof of insurance) and so that the COI identifies them as an additional insured. (Importantly, just because an entity is listed as a “certificate holder” on the COI does not make them an additional insured; it just means they are being provided proof of the insurance identified in the COI. This is not additional insured status!)  Without seeing the actual policy, specifically with respect to a liability policy, it is uncertain (a) what that entity is actually covered for and (b) what entities would be covered as an additional insured under the liability policy.

 

The summary judgment opinion in Bluewater Builders, Inc. v. United Specialty Ins. Co., 2013 WL 5670957 (S.D.Fla. 2013), demonstrates that a COI is not all it is cracked up to be. In this case, a general contractor sued its subcontractor’s CGL carrier for indemnification. The general contractor did so after it obtained a judgment against the subcontractor for water damage arising from the subcontractor’s work at a commercial high-rise officer tower. (Under Florida Statute s. 627.4136, the general contractor could not sue the subcontractor without first obtaining a settlement or verdict against the subcontractor-insured.) The insurer moved for summary judgment because the insured-subcontractor’s policy provided on the Declarations page that the policy covered the subcontractor’s operations for the following classification: “carpentry-construction of residential property not exceeding three stories in height.” Buewater Builders, 2013 WL at *1. The Declarations page further provided that coverage was strictly limited to this classification and that no coverage would be provided for any other classification.  The policy did not cover the subcontractor’s work at a commercial high-rise tower.

 

The general contractor argued that the insurer should be estopped from relying on the exclusionary language in the policy because it received a COI from the subcontractor and it detrimentally relied on this COI in hiring the subcontractor. Specifically, the general contractor relied on the doctrine of promissory estoppel which applies when a “plaintiff detrimentally relies upon a defendant’s promise, the defendant should have expected the promise to induce reliance, and injustice can only be avoided by enforcement of the promise.” Bluewater Builders, 2013 WL at *3. However, the general contractor could not point to any promise the insurer actually made because the insured-subcontractor was the one that transmitted the COI. And, the COI did not state that it would insure the subcontractor’s work for the project; it was simply evidence of insurance without any “promise.” In fact, the COI at-issue is believed to have not even listed the insurer as the liability insurer for the subcontractor. Thus, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer finding there was no coverage for the subcontractor’s work at the commercial high-rise under the policy.

 

 

It is important to remember that the COI does not create an obligation for an insurer.  This is demonstrated by the following portion of the Court’s opinion:

 

The Certificate [of Insurance] does not suggest that Defendant [insurer] would insure Ferman [insured-subcontractor], nor does it create some other obligation on Defendant’s part. Further insight into the preparation of the Certificate [of Insurance] is therefore inapposite to whether Defendant owes any obligation to Ferman or Plaintiff [general contractor] under the Policy.”

Bluewater Builders, 2013 at *4.

 

Remember, the COI does not create insurance coverage which is why it is always beneficial to see the policy and, as it pertains to additional insured status, to see the actual additional insured endorsement.

 

For more information on a third party suing a liability carrier, please see http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/a-third-party-suing-a-liability-carrier/

 

For more information on additional insured status, please see http://www.floridaconstructionlegalupdates.com/understanding-your-rights-as-an-additional-insured/

 

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.