A Consequential Ruling: Florida Supreme Court Rejects Recovery of Consequential Damages in First-Party Breach of Contract Actions

In first-party breach of insurance contract actions, the parties oftentimes dispute whether the policyholder may seek damages that are not explicitly provided for in the policy, with the policyholder arguing such indirect damages flow from the alleged breach of contract. By doing so, policyholders blur the lines between breach of contract actions and bad faith actions. The Florida Supreme Court recently considered this issue in Citizens Property Insurance Corp. v. Manor House, LLC,[1]  and held that “extra-contractual, consequential damages are not available in a first-party breach of insurance contract action because the contractual amount due to the insured is the amount owed pursuant to the express terms and conditions of the insurance policy.”

Manor House arose from a Hurricane Frances insurance claim filed by an owner of apartment buildings. Citizens issued payments totaling approximately $1.9 million. Approximately nineteen months after the loss, Manor House’s public adjuster asked Citizens to reopen the claim. After reopening the claim, Citizens made additional payments and continued its adjustment. Several months after reopening the claim, Citizens’ field adjuster informally estimated the actual cash value of the loss at approximately $5.5 million and the replacement cost value at $6.4 million.

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Posted in Hurricane

Policyholders’ Counsel Test “Mother of All” Covid-19 Coverage Suits in a Bid to Block Insurers’ Path to Federal Court

Covid-19 has caused trillions in business losses. Whether those losses are covered by commercial property insurance is an existential issue for both policyholders and insurers. But before that legal battle, the battlefield must be chosen. Do these coverage suits belong in federal or state court?

In July 2020, a group of 42 Chicago restaurants and bars filed a lawsuit in Illinois state court against 19 commercial property insurers, seeking coverage for Covid-19 business losses,[1] in what plaintiffs’ counsel called the “mother of all” Covid-19 coverage suits.[2] A few days later, the same counsel filed a suit in New York state court on behalf of 94 restaurants and bars against 41 insurers.[3] Both suits allege that the insurers wrongly denied coverage, based on a lack of “direct physical loss or damage” under the policies.

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Posted in Coverage, Fraud

Court’s Opinion Provides Guidance on Protecting a Claims Handling Manual as a Trade Secret

In Chavez v. Std. Ins. Co., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 203610 (N.D. Tex. Oct. 30, 2020), Judge David C. Godbey considered a variation on a common scenario that arises in first party cases.  Typically, the insured/plaintiff wants an insurer’s claims handling manual to use against the insurer in proving claims under Texas Insurance Code Chapter 541 and the DTPA.  However, as Judge Godbey explained, such manuals are not automatically discoverable.  Also, insurers can significantly increase the chances that a court will protect such manuals from unrestricted discovery and use in litigation by providing certain affidavit evidence.

The plaintiff in Chavez was receiving long-term disability benefits from Standard Insurance Company (“Standard”).  Standard terminated Chavez’s benefits after a medical examination.  Litigation ensued.  Chavez requested Standard’s claims handling manual in discovery.  To avoid a discovery dispute, Standard produced the manual pursuant to an agreed protective order.  Chavez subsequently sought to undo Standard’s designation of the manual as confidential trade secret under the protective order.       

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North Carolina Court Finds Coverage for Restaurants’ COVID-19 Business Income Losses

A trial level court in North Carolina recently found coverage under first-party property insurance policies for the insured restaurants’ COVID-19-related business income losses.  In North State Deli, LLC et al. v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., et al., Case No. 20-CVS-02569 in the General Court of Justice, Superior Court Division, County of Durham, Judge Orlando F. Hudson, Jr. granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiff-insureds, finding that plaintiffs’ business income losses resulting from the governmental shutdown of its business constituted a “loss” to property, sufficient to trigger coverage under the Cincinnati policies.  Although similarly situation insureds will undoubtedly rely on this decision in support of their claims for coverage, it is important to note that the North State Deli decision relies heavily on the specific policy language at issue, and that the policies in question did not contain a virus exclusion.  Accordingly, a deeper analysis is required before determining the impact of this ruling. 

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Posted in Business Interuption, Causes of Loss, Coverage, Direct Physical Loss or Damage, Order of Civil Authority

Ensuing Loss Clause Does Not Create Coverage for “Collapse” Inseparable from Damage Caused by Excluded Perils

            In Jowite Limited Partnership v. Federal Insurance Company, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland issued a rare opinion addressing whether “collapse” is a covered “ensuing loss” under an all-risks insurance policy without a specific collapse coverage.  Case No. 1:18-cv-02413-DLB (D. Md. August 17, 2020).  In a win for insurers, the Court held that, under Maryland law, the ensuing loss exception to a construction defect exclusion did not apply to reinstate coverage where the purported “collapse” was to the defective property itself, regardless of whether the “collapse” was characterized as merely the damage caused by construction defects or a separate and distinct peril.

            The insured, Jowite Limited Partnership (“Jowite”), owned an apartment complex constructed in the 1980s.  Id. at 2.  At various times between 1999 and 2017, the complex’s “Building 300” was inspected by construction professionals and discovered to be sinking.  Id. at 2-3.  The sinking resulted in significant structural damage to the building, including cracked interior walls and façade, rotted support beams, and a failed cement footer.  One engineer deemed Building 300 uninhabitable.  Jowite’s experts ultimately determined that Building 300’s improperly designed and constructed foundation and footers caused the loss.  Id. at 3, 6.

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Posted in Causes of Loss, Collapse, Coverage, Mold, Water

Trouble Brewing: Florida Federal Court Dismisses Beer Distributor’s Claim for COVID-19 Losses

Insurance claims arising out of COVID-19-related commercial losses have been hotly contested, and lawsuits have been filed across the country by policyholders seeking coverage for lost business income.  These claims typically raise similar coverage questions – whether the spread of a virus could constitute “direct physical loss,” whether civil authority coverage is triggered, and whether virus exclusions preclude coverage.  In Harvest Moon Distributors, LLC v. Southern-Owners Insurance Company, Case no. 6:20-cv-1026-Orl-40DCI, Judge Paul Byron of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida recently granted an insurer’s motion to dismiss in a different type of COVID-19 claim, relating to spoliation of product after a contract fell through. 

The insured, Harvest Moon Distributors, LLC (“Harvest Moon”), is a wine and beer distributor.  Harvest Moon entered into a contract with Disney to provide beer for sale in Disney parks.  After obtaining the beer to distribute to Disney, and before the product was shipped, Disney voluntarily closed its parks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a result, Disney refused to accept the beer or compensate Harvest Moon.  The beer subsequently spoiled while Disney remained closed.

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Posted in Coverage, Direct Physical Loss or Damage

Eleventh Circuit Confirms Cleaning is not Direct Physical Loss

The Eleventh Circuit has provided some clarity to Florida businesses and their insurers dealing with COVID-19 claims. In Mama Jo’s Inc., d.b.a. Berries v. Sparta Ins. Co., No. 18-12887 (11th Cir. March 18, 2020), the Court held that a restaurant’s lost income and extra cleaning costs due to nearby roadwork did not trigger coverage because it did not involve direct physical loss or damage.

In the underlying case pending in the Southern District of Florida, Mama Jo’s, Inc. v. Sparta Ins. Co., 17-CV-23362-KMM, 2018 WL 3412974, at *9 (S.D. Fla. June 11, 2018), the Court considered whether there was a direct physical loss when construction debris and dust from road work required the insured to clean its floors, walls, tables, chairs, and countertops. The Court held unequivocally that “cleaning is not considered direct physical loss.”  Id. The Court stated: “A direct physical loss ‘contemplates an actual change in insured property then in a satisfactory state, occasioned by accident or other fortuitous event directly upon the property causing it to become unsatisfactory for future use or requiring that repairs be made to make it so.’”  Id. Because the insured’s claim did not involve any direct physical loss, the district court granted summary judgment to the insurer.

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Posted in Coverage, Direct Physical Loss or Damage

JPML Will Not Allow Centralization of MDL Covid-19 Lawsuits

On April 20, 2020, two policyholders involved in Covid-19 class action suits filed the first motion with the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) asking for the transfer and coordination or consolidation of two class actions suits filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania with nine so-called “related actions” filed in federal courts in Illinois, Florida, New York, Wisconsin, Ohio, California, Oregon, and Texas and “subsequent tag-along actions.”[1] Others followed suit in attempting to transfer, coordinate, and/or consolidate actions into several MDLs. There are currently more than 100 insurance companies named as defendants in the cases proposed for transfer.

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Posted in Business Interuption, Direct Physical Loss or Damage

New Hurricane Harvey Opinion Provides a Roadmap to Defeating Common Policyholder Attorney Tactics

Policyholders attorneys often try to skip the threshold steps of bringing their client’s claim within coverage and allocating between covered and non-covered causes of loss.  Instead, the policyholder attorney would have the insurer first disprove coverage, or at least first justify its coverage position.  These tactics unfold in a familiar way.

The policyholder attorney will engage a consultant to write up an Xactimate estimate.  Or, perhaps a public adjuster already wrote up the estimate and then brought the claim to the attorney.  Everything that is wrong with the structure will go into the estimate.  Every water-stained ceiling tile, bent AC condenser fin, and dent on the siding will go into the estimate regardless of causation.  The bigger estimate, the better to create more leverage.  Then the policyholder attorney will simply ride that estimate all the way through the case.  To save money, the policyholder attorney will often not retain an engineer to give causation opinions regarding the damage.  Or, the policyholder attorney may retain an engineer to provide a stock report that is heavy on magic words but short on competent causation opinions.  A common issue is trying to overcome a policy’s limitation requiring a storm-created opening.  The policyholder attorney will also try to poke holes in the insurer’s investigation of the claim to muddle the issue of causation. 

Judge Sim Lake recently examined a case with some of these characteristics in Papa Yolk’s Grill, Inc. v. AmGUARD Ins. Co., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 66672 (S.D. Tex. April 15, 2020).

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Posted in Catastrophes, Coverage, Hurricane

Correlation or Causation for Coronavirus-Related Business Income Losses

In the wake of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, countless businesses have reduced or closed operations—some permanently. Flights have been canceled, hotels and restaurants have closed, and employees have been told to stay home. Naturally, businesses will seek to offset their financial losses during this period. Some businesses may file insurance claims under their Business Income coverage.

Common Business Income (and Extra Expense) Coverage Forms might state: “We will pay for the actual loss of Business Income you sustain due to the necessary ‘suspension’ of your ‘operations’ during the ‘period of restoration’. The ‘suspension’ must be caused by direct physical loss of or damage to [covered] property ….” There has been much discussion of what constitutes “physical loss” and of policy exclusions relevant to viral pandemics. In this article, we will focus on the causation required for business income coverage. In other words, if a policyholder establishes direct physical loss to covered property because of COVID-19, and the insurance policy at issue contains no exclusions that preclude coverage, the policyholder must still demonstrate its business income losses were caused by the physical loss.

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Posted in Hurricane Ike, Uncategorized
About The Property Insurance Law Observer
For more than four decades, Cozen O’Connor has represented all types of property insurers in jurisdictions throughout the United States, and it is dedicated to keeping its clients abreast of developments that impact the insurance industry. The Property Insurance Law Observer will survey court decisions, enacted or proposed legislation, and regulatory activities from all 50 states. We will also include commentary on current issues and developing trends of interest to first-party insurers.
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