July 19, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Excess Insurer Should Have Provided Coverage for Claims Against Insured’s Own Work Product

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Black & Veatch Corp. v. Aspen Insurance (UK) LTD; Lloyd’s Syndicate 2003 on February 13, 2018.

This case is an insurance coverage dispute between Black & Veatch Corporation (B&V) and Aspen Insurance (UK) Ltd. and Lloyd’s Syndicate 2003 (collectively, Aspen). The issue is whether Aspen must reimburse B&V for the costs B&V incurred due to damaged equipment that its subcontractor constructed at power plants in Ohio and Indiana. The district court held that Aspen need not pay B&V’s claim under its commercial general liability insurance policy because B&V’s expenses arose from property damages that were not covered “occurrences” under the Policy. Because the only damages involved were to B&V’s own work product arising from its subcontractor’s faulty workmanship, the court concluded that the Policy did not provide coverage and granted Aspen’s motion for partial summary judgment.

B&V appealed. Because the Tenth Circuit predicted that the New York Court of Appeals would decide that the damages here constitute an “occurrence” under the Policy, it vacated the district court’s summary judgment decision and remanded for further consideration in light of this opinion.

B&V is a global engineering, consulting, and construction company. A portion of its work involves engineering, procurement, and construction contracts (EPC contracts). In 2005, B&V entered into an EPC contracts with American Electric Power Service Corporation to engineer, procure, and construct several jet bubbling reactors (JBRs), which eliminate contaminates from the exhaust emitted by coal-fired power plants. For at least seven of these JBRs, B&V subcontracted the engineering and construction of the internal components to Midwest Towers, Inc. (MTI). Deficiencies in the components procured by MTI and constructed by MTI’s subcontractors caused internal components of the JBRs to deform, crack, and sometimes collapse. After work on three of the JBRs was completed, and while construction of four others was ongoing, AEP alerted B&V to the property damage arising from MTI’s negligent construction. AEP and B&V entered into settlement agreements resolving their disputes relating to the JBRs at issue here. Under the agreements, B&V was obligated to pay more than $225 million in costs associated with repairing and replacing the internal components of the seven JBRs.

B&V had obtained several insurance policies to cover its work on these JBRs. Zurich American Insurance Company provided the primary layer of coverage for up to $4 million for damage to completed work. Under the CGL policy at issue here, Aspen provided the first layer of coverage for claims exceeding the Zurich policy’s limits. The policy limits coverage to up to $25 million per occurrence and $25 million aggregate. Following the basic insuring agreement, the Policy then scales back coverage through several exclusions, two of which are relevant here. The first, known as the “Your Work” exclusion, or “Exclusion F,” excludes coverage for property damage to B&V’s own completed work. The “Your Work” exclusion is subject to an exception that restores some coverage. The second exclusion, known as “Endorsement 4,” excludes coverage for property damage to the “particular part of real property” that B&V or its subcontractors were working on when the damage occurred. This exclusion pertains only to ongoing, rather than completed, work. In other words, the policy does not cover property damage to B&V’s own completed work unless the damage arises from faulty construction performed by a subcontractor. The court of appeals referred to this as the “subcontractor exception.”

B&V submitted claims to its liability insurers for a portion of the $225 million it cost to repair and replace the defective components. After B&V recovered $3.5 million from Zurich, its primary insurer, it sought excess recovery from Aspen. Aspen denied coverage. B&V sued Aspen in federal district court for breach of contract and declaratory judgment as to B&V’s rights under the policy. B&V sought coverage for approximately $72 million, a portion of the total loss. On cross-motions for partial summary judgment on the coverage issue, the court sided with Aspen, holding that damage arising from construction defects was not an “occurrence” under the policy unless the damage occurred to something other than B&V’s own work product.

The threshold question was whether the New York Court of Appeals would hold that the policy’s basic insuring agreement covered the property damage to the JBRs as an “occurrence.” The Tenth Circuit concluded that the damages constituted an “occurrence” under the policy because they were accidental and harmed a third party’s property.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals began by addressing whether, under New York contract law, B&V sought payment from Aspen for a covered “occurrence” — the first step necessary for obtaining coverage under a CGL insurance policy. An occurrence triggers coverage. The damages at issue here satisfy the Policy’s accidental requirement.

The Policy covers costs arising from property damage. When AEP claimed damages against B&V, the separation of insureds clause rendered AEP a third party with respect to its claims for property damage against B&V. The principle risk B&V faced as an EPC contractor, and thus a main reason for obtaining CGL insurance, was the potential for claims alleging damages made by the property owner, AEP. Thus, the property damage to the JBRs constituted an “occurrence” under the policy. Furthermore, concluding otherwise would violate the New York Court of Appeal’s rule against surplusage. In other words, Aspen’s interpretation of “occurrence” as excluding the damages at issue here would render several Policy provisions meaningless in violation of New York contract interpretation rules.

Under the Policy, the damages at issue here were caused by a coverage-triggering “occurrence.” First, the damages were accidental and resulted in harm to a third-party’s property, thus meeting the policy’s definition of an “occurrence.” Second, the district court’s interpretation would violate New York’s rule against surplusage by rendering the “subcontractor exception” meaningless. Third, the changes ISO has made to standard-form CGL policies demonstrate that the policies can cover the damages at issue here. Fourth, the overwhelming trend among state supreme courts has been to recognize such damages as “occurrences.” Fifth, New York intermediate appellate decisions are distinguishable, outdated, or otherwise inapplicable. For the foregoing reasons, the Tenth Circuit vacated the district court’s summary judgment decision and remanded for reconsideration in light of this opinion.