U.S. Fire Insurance Co. (“U.S. Fire”) is requesting that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirm a district court’s ruling that an $8 million arbitration award for repairs necessitated by faulty construction is not covered under its excess liability policy. U.S. Fire Insurance Co. (“U.S. Fire”) is requesting that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirm a district court’s ruling that an $8 million arbitration award for repairs necessitated by faulty construction is not covered under its excess liability policy.
The insurance coverage dispute arises out of the alleged deficient construction of a courthouse in Zapata County, Texas, by Satterfield & Pontikes Construction, Inc. (“S&P”). Arbitration of the underlying claims resulted in an $8 million judgment against S&P, allocated as follows: $6,072,000.00 in compensatory damages; $1,500,000 in attorneys’ fees; $430,458 in pre-judgment interest; and $29,909.74 in arbitration fees. S&P sought contractual indemnity from each of its subcontractors and ultimately obtained $4,492,500 in settlements with their subcontractors.
S&P then sought coverage from its primary commercial general liability insurer, American Guarantee & Liability insurance Company (“AGLIC”), and its umbrella liability insurer, U.S. Fire, for the remaining balance of the judgment. U.S. Fire refused to pay any portion of the remaining judgment on the ground that applying non-covered amounts under the excess policy to the subcontractor settlements was improper. U.S. Fire’s excess policy contained a “Fungi and Bacteria Exclusion,” and the excess insurer took the position that after subtracting the attorney’s fees, arbitration fees, prejudgment interest, and portions of the award attributed to mold remediation, there remained $3,240,000 of potentially covered claims – less than the subcontractor settlements plus the underlying coverage limits.
S&P, AGLIC, and Amerisure then sued U.S. Fire in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. In its June 1, 2017 order granting U.S. Fire’s motion for summary judgment, the district court held that no loss reaches the excess layer of insurance. The district court reasoned that the subcontractor settlements were structured as “undifferentiated general releases” and failed to allocate the settlement money between covered and non-covered damages under the excess policy. The court concluded that “allocating the settlement money it received only to uncovered harms” and then pursuing reimbursement from the excess carrier was an attempt to “manufacture a covered loss.” In so holding, the court noted that Texas courts “generally put the burden on the insured to identify the portion of a liability or loss that was produced by a covered condition.”
On November 6, 2017, S&P and Amerisure appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. They argue that there is no basis in the U.S. Fire policy to apply its terms, conditions and exclusions to reduce the amount of the subcontractor settlements, as those settlements were made pursuant to indemnification obligations arising out of S&P’s subcontracts and were not the product of insurance coverage for S&P. Additionally, S&P contends that it was not required to allocate between covered and non-covered damages in the subcontractor settlements. In its reply brief filed on January 5, 2018, U.S. Fire urged the Fifth Circuit to affirm summary judgment.
The appeal remains pending. However, this dispute is an important reminder to contractors and insurers alike to 1) carefully consider the terms of a settlement agreement and 2) determine whether the jurisdiction in which any dispute of the agreement’s terms would be litigated requires identification of the portion of a liability or loss that was produced by a covered condition. Does anyone else think that this sounds a good bit like the recent D.R. Horton v. Builder First Source decision in South Carolina? D.R. Horton, Inc. v. Builders FirstSource – Se. Grp., LLC, No. 5529, 2018 S.C. App. LEXIS 2, at *13 (Ct. App. Jan. 10, 2018).
The case is Satterfield & Pontikes Construction, Inc. and Amerisure Mutual Ins. Co. v. U.S. Fire Ins. Co., Case Number 17-20513, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. We will follow the case and update this blog post after the Fifth Circuit’s decision.