I previously discussed Coblentz agreements. A Coblentz agreement is an agreement between a claimant (e.g., property owner) and a third-party (e.g., general contractor that caused construction defects and damage) when the third-party’s liability insurer denies a defense (and coverage) to the third-party. The claimant and third-party enter into an agreement where a) the claimant obtains a consent judgment against the third-party, b) the third-party assigns its rights under its liability policy to the claimant based on the insurer’s refusal to defend and indemnify the third-party, and c) the claimant releases the third-party from any individual liability irrespective of whether the claimant recovers from the third-party’s liability insurer. (Check here for a presentation on Coblentz agreements.)
One of the key components of the Coblentz agreement is the consent judgment given by the third-party to the claimant. It is always a good idea to allocate between damages covered by insurance and damages not covered by insurance. The reason is that liability insurance is not designed to cover defective workmanship. Rather, it is designed to cover damages resulting from defective workmanship. In a construction defect dispute, the consent judgment should reasonably allocate the covered damage (damage caused by defective workmanship) and uncovered damage (the cost solely to repair defective workmanship). These amounts should not be arbitrarily decided but should be supported with expert opinions since this point would be litigated against the liability insurer when the claimant tries to recover from the third-party’s liability insurer.
For example, in the recent opinion of Bradfield v. Mid-Continent Casualty Company, 2015 WL 6956543 (M.D.Fla. 2015), an aspect of the opinion dealt with the lack of an allocation of damages in a consent judgment given in consideration of a Coblentz agreement. The contractor gave the owner a consent judgment in the amount of $671,050. But, there was no allocation of this lump sum amount for covered and uncovered damage or what this lump sum was designated for. The consent judgment was based on an estimate prepared by an expert but the estimate included costs to repair defective work, or work that was not covered by the liability insurance policy. The Middle District of Florida found that this failure to appropriately allocate covered verses uncovered damage was fatal to the owner’s claim against the third-party contractor’s liability insurer to recover the amount of the consent judgment. The court explained: “Florida law clearly requires the party seeking recovery…to allocate any settlement amount between covered and noncovered claims.” Bradfield, supra, at *24.
Even if damages were allocated, the consent judgment still needs to be reasonable and entered in good faith. The court discussed this aspect of the Coblentz agreement despite finding that the failure to allocate was fatal to the owner’s claims against the contractor’s liability insurer. As to the reasonableness of a consent judgment, the court importantly maintained:
When an injured party wishes to recover under a Coblentz agreement, [t]he claimant must assume the burden of initially going forward with the production of evidence sufficient to make a prima facie showing of reasonableness and lack of bad faith, even though the ultimate burden of proof will rest with the carrier. The courts impose good faith and reasonableness requirements in these cases due to the risk that the settlement of liability and damages in a settlement agreement may have little relationship to the strength of a plaintiff’s claim where the insured may never be obligated to pay and has little to lose if he stipulates to a large sum with the plaintiff.
In Florida, the test as to whether a settlement is reasonable and prudent is what a reasonably prudent person in the position of the defendant [the insurer] would have settled for on the merits of plaintiff’s claim. Objective and subjective factors are considered, including the degree of certainty of the tortfeasor’s subjection to liability, the risks of going to trial and the chances that the jury verdict might exceed the settlement offer. [P]roof of reasonableness is ordinarily established through use of expert witnesses to testify about such matters as the extent of the defendant’s liability, the reasonableness of the damages amount in comparison with compensatory awards in other cases, and the expenses which have been required for the settling defendants to settle the suit. Bad faith also may be established by evidence of the absence of any effort to minimize liability.
Bradfield, supra, at 27 (internal quotations and citations omitted).
When considering a Coblentz agreement on behalf of a claimant, make sure the judgment allocates between covered and noncovered claims / damages and is reasonable. The same experts utilized to support the allocation can be utilized to support the reasonableness of the allocation for covered claims / damages.
Please contact David Adelstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or (954) 361-4720 if you have questions or would like more information regarding this article. You can follow David Adelstein on Twitter @DavidAdelstein1.