Courts sometimes struggle with the issue of whether property damage arising in the context of a contractual relationship, particularly in construction contracts, constitutes an "occurrence" under a standard commercial general liability (CGL) policy. Generally, but not always – and it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction – courts regard contractual breaches as non-accidental conduct, and/or apply the so-called "business risk" exclusions (such as the standard CGL "Your Work" exclusion), in finding no coverage. Lexington Ins. Co. v. Chicago Flameproof Wood Specialties Corp., No. 17-cv-3513 (N.D. Ill. Aug 10, 2018), a recent decision from a federal court in Illinois, is illustrative.
Lexington Insurance Company ("Lexington") issued a CGL policy to Chicago Flameproof and Wood Specialties Corporation ("Chicago Flameproof"). The policy provided that Lexington would pay sums that Chicago Flameproof "becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of bodily injury or property damage" that is "caused by an occurrence that takes place in the coverage territory" and that "occurs during the policy period."
A framing contractor, required by contract to use fire-retardant-treated lumber meeting International Building Code (IBC) requirements, procured lumber from Chicago Flameproof to be used for the exterior walls of four buildings. The framing contractor contracted with Chicago Flameproof to buy D-Blaze lumber, but instead, was provided non-IBC-compliant lumber. As a result, the framing contractor was ultimately instructed to remove and replace the non-compliant lumber and sued Chicago Flameproof for negligently or fraudulently misrepresenting the type of lumber it was providing, resulting in damage to the exterior walls, wiring, and Tyvek insulation on the buildings, among other things (the "Underlying Actions").
Chicago Flameproof sought coverage from Lexington, but Lexington challenged coverage and filed a declaratory judgment action, arguing that its duties to defend and indemnify were not triggered "because the claims against Chicago Flameproof do not involve property damage, were not the result of an occurrence, and were otherwise excluded by the policy's business risk exclusions." The parties moved for summary judgment, agreeing that no factual dispute existed and the only issue was the interpretation of the CGL policy, a question of law.
The court disagreed with Lexington's argument that there was no "property damage" as the framing contractor sought to hold Chicago Flameproof "liable for physical injury to tangible property." The court also disagreed with Lexington's argument that the damage alleged was "nothing more than economic injuries stemming from the repair and replacement of the non-compliant lumber," as there were "allegations of physical alterations to property other than the insured's product" caused by the removal process which could fall within the definition of "property damage."
However, the court acknowledged that, "for property damage to be covered by the CGL policy, it must be caused by an 'occurrence.'" Illinois courts find an "occurrence" in the insurance context to mean:
An unforeseen occurrence, usually of an untoward or disastrous character or [a] ... sudden, or unexpected event of an inflicting or unfortunate character.... However, even if the person performing the act did not intend or expect the result, if the result is the rational and probable consequence of the act, or, stated differently, the natural and ordinary consequence of the act, it is not an accident for liability insurance purposes.
Chicago Flameproof argued that the Underlying Actions satisfy the "occurrence" requirement "because they assert negligent misrepresentation and because Chicago Flameproof did not expect or intend the injuries to other building materials." The court disagreed, and focused on the conduct alleged: Chicago Flameproof "failed to exercise reasonable care when it represented that it had D-Blaze lumber in stock and when it did not inform [the framing contractor] that its orders could be fulfilled." Although couched in negligence terminology, the thrust of the complaints "is that Chicago Flameproof engaged in deliberate conduct – the shipping of the wrong lumber and the concealment of that fact – that caused the alleged property damage."
The court reasoned that, even though Chicago Flameproof's delivery of the lumber was allegedly intentional "does not necessarily mean that it expected or intended the collateral injuries to the exterior walls, wiring, and insulation.... Chicago Flameproof could have and should have reasonably anticipated that such injuries could result from supplying" the wrong lumber, which had to be torn out of the buildings. "These damages are the natural and ordinary consequence of knowingly supplying a non-compliant product and thus do not potentially fall within the CGL policy's coverage."
In concluding, the court stated that, although the Underlying Actions contain "one count for negligent misrepresentation, mere inclusion of a negligence theory does not – and cannot – by itself satisfy the occurrence requirement. Nowhere in the complaint are there allegations of an unforeseen or accidental event that produced property damage."
This case is a helpful reminder that liability insurance cannot be used as a warranty for an insured's failure to fulfill contractual undertakings, and that even if couched in a complaint as "negligent" conduct, when assessing an insurer's duty to defend and indemnify under a CGL policy, careful consideration should be paid to the cause of the alleged damages when determining if there is an "occurrence."
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