Don’t fall in the trap of buying the cheapest insurance policy.  It will come and bite you in the butt big time! Consult with an insurance broker that understands construction and, importantly, your specific industry, to provide you coverage within your industry.  Otherwise, you’ll be paying for a policy that may (i) not be a good policy, and (ii) may provide you minimal to no value for your industry’s RISKS and NEEDS when factoring in exclusions.  When procuring insurance, think of the old adage “penny wise and pound foolish,” and don’t make decisions that fit within this adage!

The recent decision in Nautilus Ins. Co. v. Pinnacle Engineering & Development, Inc., 2024 WL 940527 (S.D. Fla. 2024) serves as an example.  Here, a subcontractor was hired by a general contractor to perform underground utility work for a townhome development which consisted of 57 townhome units included in 18 detached structures. The subcontractor’s underground work was defective which caused damage to the property’s water line, sewer system, plumbing lines, pavers, etc. The general contractor was liable to the owner for this defective work.  Although the general contractor was an additional insured under the subcontractor’s commercial general liability (CGL) policy, the subcontractor’s CGL carrier denied the duty to defend and initiated an insurance coverage lawsuit. Motions for summary judgment were filed.

The subcontractor’s policy contained an exclusion in an endorsement for residential construction operations that provided that the policy does NOT cover bodily injury or property damage:

[A]rising out of, resulting from, related to, or in any way connected with, either directly or indirectly, your ongoing operations, “your product”, or “your work” performed by or on behalf of any insured, either prior to or during the policy period, that is incorporated into or performed at any of the following construction projects:

a. Any new townhouse or residential condominium project where the total number of individual residential units is greater than twenty-five (25), regardless of the number of buildings, developments, phases or associations;

b. Any new residential housing project (also known as a Planned Unit Development (PUD) or tract housing), where the total number of “residential housing units” is greater than twenty-five (25), regardless of the number of buildings, developments, phases or associations;”

The term “individual residential unit” in subsection (a) was not a defined term. The contractor argued this lack of definition created an ambiguity which should be interpreted in its favor and against the insurer. The court disagreed and entered summary judgment in favor of the insurer.  The exclusion in the endorsement applied to BAR coverage. This meant there was no duty to defend and, thus, no duty to indemnify.

I. Evaluation of Insurer’s Duties under Liability Policy

An insurer’s duty to defend arises from the insurance contract and policy. Therefore, “summary judgment is appropriate in declaratory judgmentactions seeking a declaration of coverage when the insurer’s duty, if any, rests solely on the applicability of the insurance policy, the construction andeffect of which is a matter of law.” “An insurer’s duty to indemnify is narrower than its duty to defend and must be determined by analyzing the policycoverages in light of the actual facts in the underlying case.”

“Under Florida law, an insurance policy is treated like a contract, and therefore ordinary contract principles govern the interpretation andconstruction of such a policy.” As with all contracts, the interpretation of an insurance contract — including determining whether an insuranceprovision is ambiguous—is a question of law to be determined by the court.

“Under Florida law, insurance contracts are construed according to their plain meaning.” The “terms of an insurance policy should be taken andunderstood in their ordinary sense and the policy should receive a reasonable, practical and sensible interpretation consistent with the intent of the parties-not a strained, forced or unrealistic construction.” However, if there is more than one reasonable interpretation of an insurance policy, anambiguity exists and it “should be construed against the insurer.”

A coverage clause is generally interpreted as broadly as possible to ensure the greatest amount of insurance coverage. To determine the parties’contractual intent, a court may only consider the language in the insurance policy, unless the policy is ambiguous. “As a general rule, in the absenceof some ambiguity, the intent of the parties to a written contract must be ascertained from the words used in the contract, without resort to extrinsicevidence.”

Nautilus Ins., supra at *6-7 (internal citations omitted).

II. The Exclusion in the Endorsement Barred Coverage – There is No Ambiguity

The “failure to define a term involving coverage does not necessarily render the term ambiguous.” In Florida, when a term is undefined in aninsurance policy, the term is to be “given [its] plain and ordinary meaning.” To find in favor of the insured due to an ambiguity in an insurancecontract, “the policy must actually be ambiguous.” Therefore, the necessary determination is the plain and ordinary meaning of the undefined term“individual residential unit” in the Endorsement Exclusion.


However, in Florida, “exclusionary provisions which are…susceptible to more than one meaning must be construed in favor of the insured.’ ” Forcases involving exclusions to insurance contracts, this rule is to be read more clearly in favor of an insured if “ ‘a genuine inconsistency,uncertainty, or ambiguity in meaning remains after resort to the ordinary rules of construction” Therefore, “courts should not strain to findambiguity…if there is no genuine ambiguity, there is no reason to bypass the policy’s plain meaning.” Id. (citations omitted).


Consistent with Florida law, providing a “plain meaning analysis” for the term “individual residential units” indicates a thing intended for one person, existing as a distinct entity and indivisible whole (individual), to be used as a residence (residential) which is a part of a whole (unit).

Nautilus Ins., supra at *9, 10 (internal citations omitted).

Based on the plain meaning of “individual residential units,” the exclusion in the endorsement barred coverage:

[T]he Endorsement Exclusion bars coverage and therefore [the CGL insurer] did not breach.  Moreover, the work [the subcontractor] conducted wasfor underground utilities for the Project, the work was done for the Project, incorporated into the Project, and at the Property pursuant to itssubcontract with [the general contractor]. Therefore, [the subcontractor’s] work is also barred by the Endorsement Exclusion as § A.1.a. excludes “ ‘property damage’ arising out of, resulting from, related to, or in any way connected with, either directly or indirectly. . . incorporated into orperformed at” what this Court has determined to encompass the Project. The Subcontract establishes that [the subcontractor] contracted with [the general contractor] to perform work at the Property and that it agreed to perform work for the Project. Additionally, the Subcontract establishes [the subcontractor] assumed “entire responsibility and liability…for any and all damage…of any kind…growing out of or resulting from the execution of theWork provided for in this Contract.” Therefore, the record establishes [the subcontractor’s] work was conducted at the Property and performed at andincorporated into the Project and the Endorsement Exclusion applies to [the subcontractor]. [The insurer] has met its burden to show the absence of agenuine issue of material fact and, absent any viable affirmative defenses, [the insurer] is entitled to summary judgment.

Nautilus Ins., supra, at *11.

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


There are times where a lack of sophistication can come back to haunt you.  This is not referring to a lack of sophistication of the parties.  The parties, themselves, could be quite sophisticated. This is referring to a lack of sophistication with the construction contract forming the basis of the relationship. While parties don’t always want to buy into the contract drafting and negotiation process, it is oftentimes the first document reviewed.  Because contract terms and conditions are important.  They govern the relationship, the risk, scope, amount, and certain outcomes with disputes.  However, a lack of sophistication can play out when that contract that should govern the relationship, the risk, the scope, the amount, and certain outcomes doesn’t actually do that, or if it does, it does it poorly.  An example of how bad a dispute can play out when it comes to the lack of sophistication on the front end is Avant Design Group, Inc. v. Aquastar Holdings, LLC, 2022 WL 6852227 (Fla. 3d DCA 2022), where a cost-plus contract was treated as a lump sum contract.

Here, an owner planned to perform an extensive interior build-out to a residential unit.  The owner had an out-of-country architect; because the architect was not licensed in Florida, the owner hired a local architect/designer to oversee construction and obtain goods and services for the residential interior build-out.  The contract was nothing but a proposal of items and costs.  The proposal stated the owner “would pay the cost of goods and services of the vendors, plus pay a ‘20% Interior Design & Administrative Fee’” to the local designer.  Avant Design Group, 2022 WL at *1.  The proposal further stated, “This preliminary budget of the Client’s construction costs include [sic] anticipated costs for construction materials, labor and sales tax.  Any other cost, including but not limited to freight, cartage, shipping, receiving, storage and delivery are not included in the preliminary budget and will be invoiced separately.” Id., n.2.

The owner and its local designer executed 92 proposals for purposes of the interior residential build-out.  Think about this: 92 proposals.   Collectively, all of these so-called proposals formed the basis of the contractual arrangement between the owner and local designer.  Terms and conditions, however, appeared to be skimpy at best.  The bigger issue, mentioned below, is the application of the 20% fee, as the language would suggest it is a cost-plus contract where the fee of 20% was on top of actual costs.

A dispute arose.  The owner thought it was being over-charged so it terminated the local designer. The local designer thought it was underpaid so it recorded a lien.  Then, the inevitable lawsuit. At trial, the owner had a forensic expert that testified that the owner was overcharged by over $500,000.  This was based on the owner’s position that the contract was actually a cost-plus contract.  The local designer claimed it was lump sum.  The type of contract—whether it was cost-plus OR lump sum—formed the basis of the dispute, and it mattered a lot.  A cost-plus arrangement meant that the local designer would be entitled to a cost of the goods and services plus its 20% fee markup.  A lump sum meant that actual costs did not matter–in other words, all of the proposals were simply mini-lump sum arrangements that could factor in the 20% fee markup.

Generally, absent a finding of ambiguity, parol evidence is not admissible to assist the factfinder regarding the parties’ intent.”  Avant Design Group, supra, n.10.  Stated differently, expert testimony and the testimony of the parties is irrelevant when the contract is unambiguous.  While here, the trial court did not render any findings that the contract was ambiguous, “both parties, without objection, elicited expert testimony regarding the nature of the parties’ contract.”  Avant Design Group, supra, n.10.  Both parties viewed the type of contract to be a factual issue and the trial court ruled that the contract was a cost-plus agreement.  “As ample evidence supports the trial court’s finding that the parties entered into a cost-plus contract that limited [owner’s] payment obligation to the 20% Fee, we affirm the trial court’s principal conclusion regarding the contract’s payment terms.”  Avant Design Group, supra, *4.

The determination of whether the contract was cost-plus or lump sum was really the dispute and determined the outcome.  It was the dispute. This determination meant that the local designer was overpaid by over $500,000, its lien was fraudulent, and its lien should be discharged.  Had the determination been that the contract was lump sum, the entire outcome of the case should have been different.  Keep this in mind.  If your intent is lump sum, make that intent clear.  Conversely, if it is cost-plus, it is a completely different contract relationship and contract administration because you cannot add your markup to what you are already marking up as that is double dipping.  Notably, the case of Avant Design Group has a number of interesting issues to be discussed.  Those will be probably be discussed separately in shorter postings.  The key, though, is that the dispute centered on a cost-plus contract being treated as lump sum, when that was clearly not the case.

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



shutterstock_389538880An ambiguity in an insurance policy–after reading and interpreting the policy as a whole–will be construed against an insurerThis means an ambiguity will be construed in favor of insurance coverage (for the benefit of the insured) as opposed to against insurance coverage.  This does not mean that every insurance policy contains an ambiguity.  This also does not mean a court will interpret plain and ordinary words contrary to their conventional meaning or definition.  But, as we all know, insurance policies are not the easiest of documents to decipher and ambiguities do exist relating to a particular issue or circumstance to the benefit of an insured.  An insured that is dealing with specific insurance coverage issues should make sure they are working with counsel that looks to maximize insurance coverage, even if that means exploring ambiguities that will benefit an insured based on a particular issue or circumstance.


An example of an ambiguity in an insurance policy relating to a particular issue that benefitted an insured can be found in the Florida Supreme Court decision of Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Macedo, 42 Fla. L. Weekly S731a (Fla. 2017).  This case involved an automobile accident and the interpretation of an automobile liability policy. 


In this case, after an accident, a plaintiff sued the defendant that caused the accident. The defendant’s insurer GEICO provided a defense in accordance with the defendant’s automobile liability policy.  During the litigation, the plaintiff served a proposal for settlement for $50,000, which is a procedural vehicle to create the argument for attorney’s fees if the defendant does not accept the proposal.  The defendant—again, being defended by its insurer GEICO—did not accept the proposal.  The case proceeded to trial and the plaintiff obtained a jury verdict of approximately $243,000.  This meant the plaintiff had a basis to recover attorney’s fees since the defendant did not accept the proposal for settlement.   The plaintiff moved to bind GEICO to a judgment, and the underlying issue was whether the defendant’s insurer GEICO was liable under the policy for attorney’s fees.  If GEICO was not liable, then that meant the defendant was individually liable for the plaintiff’s incurred attorney’s fees. 


This is a significant issue because by the defendant’s counsel not accepting the proposal for settlement, the defendant, individually, was exposed to substantial attorney’s fees incurred by the plaintiff.   The defendant’s counsel was hired by GEICO and GEICO controlled any settlement of the case and the defendant was required to cooperate with GEICO.


The applicable language of the insurance policy as relied upon by the Florida Supreme Court was as follows:



1. All investigative and legal costs incurred by us.

. . . .

4. We will upon request by an insured, provide reimbursement for the following items:

. . . .

(c) All reasonable costs incurred by an insured at our request.

. . . .

Additionally, the index of the policy lists “Legal Expenses And Court Costs” as items that are covered under the Additional Payments section.


The Florida Supreme Court, interpreting the policy as a whole, found this language to be ambiguous relating to the insurer’s obligation to cover attorney’s fees incurred by the plaintiff due to GEICO’s defense counsel not accepting the proposal for settlement.  This ambiguity was a big “W” for both the defendant-insured and the plaintiff because it meant that GEICO was liable for the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees.


First, the Court explained that the terms “Legal Expenses” and “Court Courts” signify that legal expenses in addition to court costs would be covered under the policy; otherwise, there would have been no reason to separately include the language “Legal Expenses” in the index of the policy.


Second, the Court explained that there are numerous reasonable interpretations that attorney’s fees are encompassed by the terms “costs” and expenses” as used in the policy. 


And, third, the Court explained that the legal expenses (attorney’s fees) incurred by the insured were the product of GEICO electing not to accept the proposal for settlement, and thus, were incurred by the defendant-insured at GEICO’s direct request.  GEICO had complete discretion under the policy to settle the case with the insured being required to cooperate with its insurer.   “It follows that any cost or fee incurred as a result of GEICO exercising its authority and control is something that it intended to pay.”  See Macedo, supra



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



images9DHJ23URContractors should spend time carefully drafting and agreeing to a detailed scope of work.  Otherwise, a dispute may arise relating to that scope of work.  This dispute can take the form of a change order dispute where the contractor argues that the subcontractor’s change order request was base contract work and, thus, does not entitle the subcontractor to additional compensation. Or, the dispute can take the form of a defect claim where the subcontractor argues that the defect being asserted against it was never within its scope of work to begin with.


If there is a scope of work dispute, a court will look to the contract and any applicable change orders in order to see what the contract requires.  If an ambiguity exists relating to the scope of work, the court will determine whether the ambiguity is a patent ambiguity or a latent ambiguityA patent ambiguity clearly exists on the face of the contract based on defective, insensible, or obscure language used in the contract whereas a latent ambiguity is not apparent from the face of the contract, but becomes apparent when extrinsic / parol evidence is introduced that leads to the contract being interpreted in two reasonably plausible mannersSee Barrington v. Gryphon Investments, Inc., 32 So.3d 668 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010).  With a patent ambiguity, parol evidence (extrinsic evidence used to clarify the intent of the parties relating to a contractual provision) is NOT allowed to clear up the ambiguity; rather, it is up to the trier of fact (judge or jury) to interpret the patent ambiguity without extrinsic evidence explaining the intent of the partiesSee, e.g., Barclays American Mortg. Corp. v. Bank of Central Florida, 629 So.2d 978 (Fla. 5th DCA 1993) (it was up to trier of fact to interpret letter of credit containing 2 different expiration dates).  On the other hand, with a latent ambiguity, parol evidence is allowed to be introduced relating to the parties’ intent to assist the trier of fact in clearing up the ambiguity.


r pondThe opinion in Macky Bluffs Development Corp. v. Advance Construction Services, Inc., 2008 WL 109390 (N.D.Fla. 2008) illustrates what can happen if there is an ambiguous scope of work.  Here, a developer entered into a change order with a contractor to fix the collapsed wall of a retention pond.  The change order required the contractor to haul off collapsed material from the bottom of the pond.  To fix the wall, the contractor hauled collapsed material and stockpiled the material on lot #8 (owned by the developer).  The contractor reused suitable material in reconstructing the wall in addition to material it excavated from lot #8.  The unsuitable material the contractor did not use in reconstructing the wall was spread out and compacted on lot #8 versus being hauled offsite to a dumping site.


Years later, the developer discovered the unsuitable materials had been buried on lot #8 that required it to excavate and remove this material and refill with suitable material.  The developer then sued the contractor for the costs it incurred in remediating this issue.  The contractor moved for summary judgment arguing that lot #8 was never part of its scope of work and it reconstructed the wall of the retention pond pursuant to the change order.   Unfortunately, the change order did not specify whether the contractor was required to haul off unsuitable material to an offsite dumping facility or it was required to leave that material on lot #8.  In fact, it does not appear the change order even mentioned that the contractor was going to stockpile collapsed material on lot #8 and reuse suitable material in reconstructing the wall.   The owner’s position was that while the contractor could use lot #8 as a temporary storage area, the contractor was always required to haul off unsuitable material to an offsite dumping facility.  The contractor disagreed stating it was always going to leave unsuitable material on lot #8 that it could not reuse to reduce the costs associated with fixing the wall.  Yet, the change order did not address this issue and was ambiguous as to what the contractor’s scope of work consisted of relative to reconstructing the wall with stockpiled suitable material and what it was required to do with unsuitable material it did not reuse.


The Northern District maintained that the scope of work in the change order contained a latent ambiguity because the change order did not identify where the contractor was required to haul off the collapsed material and both the contractor and owner’s interpretation of this scope of work was plausible and reasonable.   The court’s opinion includes a good discussion about the difference between a patent ambiguity and a latent ambiguity:


Under Florida law, the interpretation of a contract is a matter of law for the court’s determination so long as the terms of the contract are unambiguous.  The existence of an ambiguity in a contract is also a matter of law.  There are two types of ambiguities that can exist in a contract: patent and latent.  A patent ambiguity is one that appears on the face of the contract.  A latent ambiguity, on the other hand, exists where the language employed is clear and intelligible and suggests but a single meaning, but some extrinsic / parol evidence creates a necessity for interpretation or a choice among two or more possible meanings.  If the ambiguity is patent, then parol evidence cannot be used to clarify the parties’ intent.  If the court finds, however, that there is a latent ambiguity in the contract, then parol evidence must be heard in order to explain the meaning of the ambiguous term.  After receiving parol evidence clarifying the latent ambiguity, if there is no genuine issue of material fact remaining, the court can resolve the ambiguity as a matter of law.  Where, however, the terms of the written instrument are disputed and reasonably susceptible to more than one construction, an issue of fact is presented as to the parties’ intent which cannot properly be resolved by summary judgment.”

Macky Bluffs Development Corp., supra, at *2 (internal citations and quotations omitted).


Had the parties clearly clarified the scope of work relating to how collapsed material was going to be stockpiled on lot #8 and reused and whether unsuitable material was going to be (a) hauled offsite or (b) left on lot #8, there probably would be no scope of work dispute.  But, because this issue was not truly defined, it presented an ambiguity that naturally resulted in a dispute when the developer needed to remove the unsuitable material on lot #8.  The key is to spend the effort to clearly articulate the scope of work, whether it is base contract work or change order work, to best support your argument when a scope of work dispute subsequently arises.


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