The California Court of Appeal recently reversed a trial court's dismissal of a lawsuit, concluding that because there was a dispute over when a homeowner's claim "occurred" for purposes of an insurance policy, that dispute must be resolved by a jury.
Guastello v. AIG Specialty Insurance Co.1 involved a dispute over whether a claim was covered by an insurance policy. The events in question began in 2003 and 2004, when a subcontractor built retaining walls in a housing development. Several years later, the plaintiff purchased a home in the development. Fast forward to 2010, when one of the retaining walls close to the plaintiff's lot failed and caused significant damage to the plaintiff's backyard perimeter wall, among other things.
The plaintiff obtained a default judgment of over $700,000 against the subcontractor. The plaintiff then filed a lawsuit against the subcontractor's insurer, seeking payment on the judgment. The insurer filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal on the ground that the subcontractor only had a policy with the insurer in 2003 and 2004, but the property damage occurred in 2010.
In response to the motion, the plaintiff filed a declaration in which a geotechnical engineer stated that the retaining wall failed due to the subcontractor's negligent construction. Significantly, the engineer stated that the damage to the retaining wall and surrounding area began within months of the construction's completion, including through "continuous and progressive destabilization" of the area. The insurer, on the other hand, submitted evidence that no damage occurred until the retaining wall failed in 2010.
Ultimately, the trial court sided with the insurer, and the plaintiff subsequently filed an appeal.
Occurrence vs. Claims-Made
The appeals court noted that the subcontractor had an occurrence policy, which "provides coverage for damages that occur during the policy period, even if the claim is made after the policy has expired," as opposed to a "claims-made" policy—which "provides coverage only if the claim is made during the policy period." Accordingly, the key question was whether the damage that the plaintiff suffered occurred during the 2003-2004 policy period.
In answering that question, the appeals court relied on the "settled rule" that "when continuous or progressively deteriorating damage or injury first manifests itself, the insurer remains obligated to indemnify the insured for the entirety of the ensuing damage or injury."
Ultimately, the court concluded that—based on the expert declaration—there was evidence from which a jury could find that the damage began occurring shortly after the retaining wall's completion in 2003. Therefore, the Court of Appeal held that the trial court erred in dismissing the plaintiff's claim on summary judgment, and the case was sent back to the trial court so a jury could resolve the disputed issue of when the damage began to occur.
Lessons in Insurance
As this case illustrates, both owners and contractors should be aware of the types of insurance policies that they and those with whom they contract have. Whether it is a claims-made or occurrence policy can sometimes make the difference between whether a claim is covered or not.
1. 61 Cal.App.5th 97, 275 Cal.Rptr.3d 370 (2021)
Originally published 05.19.21
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