New Jersey Opinion Focuses on the “Nature and Scope” of Damage to Determine Trigger for Coverage

Recently, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that insurance coverage for construction defect liability claims extends until the nature and the scope of the property damage becomes apparent. Thus, a new grey area has been created for insurers to assess time on risk. The result of the opinion leads one to believe that insurer will more likely than not lose on summary judgment as to “trigger” because the court seemingly requires a rigorous and fact-intensive analysis of when the “last pull” of the trigger occurs.

The underlying matter involved a condominium building that was built between November 2005 and April 2008. As early as February 2008, homeowners noticed water damage in their windows, ceilings and other portions of the units. In May 2010 the unit owners hired an expert to perform a moisture survey of the development and he identified 111 spots of moisture damaged areas that need to be removed and replaced. The unit owners alleged the HVAC contractor was to blame for the moisture intrusion at the project.

Selective issued an “occurrence based” general liability policy that covered bodily injury and property damage taking place during the policy period of June 2009 through June 2012 for the HVAC contractor. Selective disclaimed coverage on the grounds the alleged property damage had occurred prior to the inception of its policy because the homeowners were aware of the problems in 2008. The trial court agreed with Selective and found that the continuous trigger applied to the claims against the HVAC contractor, but still held that Selective had no coverage obligations because the damage had in fact manifested before June 2009.

The HVAC contractor appealed and argued, “the end date for the continuous trigger doesn’t occur until an expert report or some other proof definitively establishes that the policyholder’s faulty work caused the alleged damage.” The court disagreed and stated that “an attribution analysis could be highly fact-dependent, and difficult to resolve when an insured makes a request for defense and indemnification after being named in a complaint.” In sum, HVAC contractor argued that the trigger began when the expert analysis was performed in 2010. Conversely, Selective argued that , based on the hearsay statements of the homeowners, the triggering event occurred in 2008. The appellate court found that information about the building defects was or reasonably could have been revealed at any time between the time of the unit owners’ complaints until the start of Selective’ s policy in June 2009 and the case should be reopened to allow for discovery to explore the critical factual issues outlined in the opinion regarding the discovery of the damage.

The ruling muddies the water as to triggering events and the parties have been ordered to complete more discovery to determine when the essential manifestation occurred in this instance. For insurers in this jurisdiction, this means they will need to pursue discovery as to the nature and scope of the damage to attempt demonstrate when the last trigger pull occurred if they are seeking to avoid providing coverage. Conversely, insureds will likely attempt to undercut this evidence as inadmissible or too vague to warrant a “trigger pull.” Those who represent insureds in this jurisdiction may find this case inconsistent with spirit of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s landmark 1994 ruling in Owens-Illinois Inc. v. United Insurance Co., which applied the continuous trigger in a dispute over coverage for asbestos-related bodily injury claims to maximize coverage.

This case is Air Master & Cooling Inc. v. Selective Insurance Co., case number A-5415-15T3, in the Superior Court of the State of New Jersey, Appellate Division. Our office intends to follow this case and will update with a blog post regarding significant decisions.

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