First Circuit, Souter Grant Coverage despite Exclusion

Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court David Souter returned to his First Circuit roots and participated in an August 2015 ruling declining to uphold a policy exclusion where the injured person was employed by a contractor with no written contractual relationship to the insured. The court’s rationale was the term “contractor” is ambiguous and the ambiguity should be construed against the insurer.

In July 2009, homeowners hired general contractor Benchmark Construction Services, Inc. to renovate their home in Massachusetts. The homeowners hired architect Thomas Huth to design the renovation plans. Huth hired Sara Egan d/b/a Painted Design to do some decorative painting to one of the interior walls of the home. Egan sent her employee, Meghan Bailey, to the perform the painting work. Benchmark did not have a written contractual relationship with Huth (architect), Egan (painter), or Bailey (painter’s employee). On March 5, 2010, while Bailey was applying decorative paint, she fell from a ladder that was standing on top scaffolding allegedly erected by Benchmark.

Bailey sued Benchmark in the Massachusetts Superior Court, alleging she was injured in the fall, Benchmark owed her a duty of care, and Benchmark negligently erected and maintained the ladder and scaffolding. Benchmark sought defense from its insurer, United States Liability Insurance Company (“USLIC”) but USLIC determined Bailey’s claims were not covered under Benchmark’s insurance policy. According to USLIC, an endorsement to the policy specifically excluded Bailey’s injuries from coverage. Therefore, USLIC has no duty to defend or indemnify Benchmark against those claims.

USLIC won on summary judgment, with the district court finding the endorsement to be “unambiguous.” Bailey’s claims were not entitled to indemnity because of a policy endorsement excluding coverage for employees of contractors and subcontractors injured while performing services. The district court said the term “contractor,” which was undefined in the policy, meant “anyone with a contract” and coverage for Bailey’s claims was excluded as her employer had contracted to do painting work.

The panel, including Souter, disagreed with the district court. Finding that “reasonably intelligent people” could differ regarding the meaning. “Anyone with a contract is surely a reasonable definition of the word ‘contractor,’ as the district court found, but so is a more narrow definition focused on the contractual relationship of the injured party and the insured.”

The court determined when disputed terms are “susceptible to multiple reasonable definitions, then the court will apply a reasonable definition that confers coverage, if one exists.” Ultimately concluding USLIC had a duty to defend and indemnify Benchmark in the underlying negligence suit.

The holding could be problematic to insurers because the court granted coverage to an injured party employed by any contractor or subcontractor on the project despite no contractual privity with the insured.

The case is U.S. Liab. Ins. Co. v. Benchmark Const. Servs., Inc., 797 F.3d 116 (1st Cir. 2015). Please contact us if you would like a copy of the case or have any questions.

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