Colorado Court Conducts a Clinic on Explosions

Earlier this month in Paros Properties v. Colorado Cas. Ins. Co., 2015 WL 5139293, U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116939 (D.Colo., Sep. 2, 2015), a federal court in Colorado addressed what constitutes an explosion.  After a mudslide knocked down part of its building, the insured contended that the structure had sustained a “violent breaking apart” and therefore an explosion, but the judge held otherwise.  In her opinion, the term “explosion” required that a force from within the object cause it to expand violently and burst apart in all directions.

shutterstock_219519070The insured owned a commercial building in Boulder, a city which experienced unprecedented rainfall in September of 2013.  On September 12th, “a violent flow of water, mud, rocks, trees, and other debris traveled down a nearby hillside [and this] knocked down a wall of the building, causing the building to partially collapse.”

The contract of insurance contained a water exclusion endorsement barring coverage for loss from “flood [or] surface water. . . mudslide or mudflow, [or] waterborne material carried or otherwise moved by” such water.  The policyholder conceded that this was applicable.  It argued, however, that an exception to the exclusion where any of the enumerated perils resulted in “explosion” operated to restore coverage.  According to the insured, “the force of the impact with the building was so abrupt and strong, and the damage so immediately catastrophic that the impact” could fairly be described that way.  The contract of insurance did not define the term “explosion.”

When the matter went into suit, the carrier filed a motion for summary judgment.  On September 2nd, Chief Judge Marcia Krieger granted it.

The issue before the court was a legal one – what is an explosion.  Judge Krieger held that it essentially connoted “a bursting of something due to a buildup of pressure within it,” citing dictionaries that defined the term as:

  • “to expand violently with a loud report under the influence of suddenly developed internal energy;” and
  • “to burst forth with sudden violence or noise from internal energy, . . . to burst violently as a result of pressure from within.”

According to the judge, “the [t]he key to this definition is that the force is internal causing the object to expand outwards, as opposed to an implosion, where an external force causes something to collapse.”

The policyholder argued that an explosion could also be defined as a “violent breaking apart,” but the court disagreed.  As the decision explained, that ignored “the commonly-recurring themes of ‘expansion’ and ‘bursting’ found in” dictionary definitions.  In Judge Krieger’s words:

A building destroyed by a rockslide or avalanche falling down on top of it certainly “breaks apart” violently, but few people would choose to describe such an act as an “explosion;” more likely, we would describe that building as being “crushed” or “buried.”  A building that is pushed laterally off its foundation and collapsed, such as when hit by a vehicle or other lateral force would certainly break apart violently in the process, but few would say the building “exploded;”  more likely, it would be described as having been “knocked over” or “knocked down” by the force.  In common use, the term “explosion” describes a very specific kind of “breaking apart” – one in which the force causing the breaking is one that emerges from within the thing being broken, causing the thing to burst and the force to be expelled in all directions simultaneously.

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It is patently clear that the forces exerted on the building did not come from within the building, that the building did not expand in response to those forces, and that it did not violently burst open as a result of such internal forces.  Thus, it was not damaged by what could be termed an “explosion.”

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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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