January 18, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Hail in Window Wells Retained Character as Surface Water for Insurance Purposes

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Martinez v. American Family Mutual Insurance Co. on Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Michael Martinez owned a home in Erie, Colorado. On August 3, 2013, a heavy rain and hail storm caused hail to collect in the window wells for his basement windows, and eventually the rain and hail overflowed into his basement windows, causing extensive damage. Martinez filed a claim with American Family, but the insurance company denied his claim after investigation, finding that the damage was caused by “flooding” or “surface water,” both of which were excluded under the insurance policy.

Martinez filed suit, seeking a declaratory judgment on the issue of coverage and asserting claims for contractual and extra-contractual damages. American Family moved for summary judgment on the issue of coverage, arguing that the insurance policy’s water damage exclusions for “flood” and “surface water” applied as a matter of law. The district court granted American Family’s motion, and Martinez appealed.

On appeal, Martinez raised two contentions: (1) the damage to his basement was not caused by “surface water” because the water that collected on his roof and melted hail did not fit the definition of surface water; and (2) even if the water was surface water, it lost that characteristic when it entered his window wells. The court of appeals disagreed on both counts. The court of appeals first evaluated the Colorado Supreme Court opinion in Heller v. Fire Insurance Exchange, 800 P.2d 1006 (Colo. 1990). The court found that the supreme court’s definition of surface water in Heller fit squarely with the issues raised by Martinez, although the facts in Heller differed significantly from those alleged by Martinez.

The court of appeals determined that the water on Martinez’s roof was unquestionably surface water, noting that dwellings were reasonably considered extensions of the earth’s surface. Likewise, melted hail was well within the definition of surface water. The court next evaluated Martinez’s claim that the water in his window wells lost its characteristic as surface water, and disagreed. The window wells were designed to retain the surrounding soil and allow water to drain, therefore they were reasonably considered extensions of the surface and did not transform the collected water into a different type of body of water.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of American Family.

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