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High court divided on faulty workmanship coverage under CGL policy

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The high court split on whether an “occurrence” under a commercial general liability policy covers an insured contract for faulty workmanship of its subcontractor.

In Sheehan Construction Co., Inc., et al. v. Continental Casualty Co., et al., No. 49S02-1001-CV-32, Justices Robert Rucker, Brent Dickson, and Theodore Boehm reversed the trial court ruling in favor of the insurers on grounds that there was no damage to the property and thus there was no “occurrence” or “property damage.”

This class-action suit involves homeowners in a subdivision in which Sheehan Construction Co. was the general contractor. The homeowners had leaking windows, water damage, and other issues caused by the faulty workmanship of Sheehan’s subcontractors. During the period at issue, Sheehan was insured under a CGL policy by Continental Insurance Co.

The class settled with Continental. Continental filed declaratory judgment that it wasn’t obligated to indemnify Sheehan; Sheehan and the class filed a third-party complaint against Indiana Insurance and MJ Insurance, Sheehan’s insurance broker. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurers and MJ Insurance. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The high court had to decide whether faulty workmanship fits within the insurance policy’s definition of “occurrence” under standard CGL policies. Jurisdictions have been split on this matter – some held it’s not an occurrence because it doesn’t constitute an “accident”; others have found improper construction be an “accident” and therefore an occurrence where the resulting damage occurs without the insured’s expectation or foresight, wrote Justice Rucker.

The majority aligned themselves with the jurisdictions that held improper or faulty workmanship does constitute an accident as long as the resulting damage is an event that occurs without expectation or foresight. They remanded for further proceedings because none of the parties’ Trial Rule 56 materials addressed the question of whether the faulty workmanship was the product of intentional or unintentional conduct, so the trial court reached no conclusion on that. If the subcontractor’s defective work was done intentionally instead of “without intention or design” then it is not an accident, wrote Justice Rucker.

In his dissent, Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard would align Indiana with those jurisdictions that have held faulty workmanship isn’t an occurrence. He wrote that these insurance policies are neither designed nor priced as coverage for whatever demands the insured may face in the nature of ordinary consumer claims about breach of warranty. He also joined Justice Frank Sullivan’s dissent, in which the justice views an “occurrence” under a CGL policy as accidental damage caused by an insured or insured’s subcontractor to property owned by third parties, but not the costs of repairing defective work. 

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  1. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

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