Friday, February 7, 2014

In Texas, Contractual-Liability Exclusions Do Not Exclude Coverage for Property-Damage Claims Based on Failure to Perform Work in a Good and Workmanlike Manner.

The Texas Supreme Court recently held that insurance coverage for property damage resulting from violations of a general contractor's contractual duty to perform work in a good and workmanlike manner are not excluded by the standard exclusion for "contractual liability" in a commercial general liability policy. Ewing Const. Co., Inc. v. Amerisure Ins. Co. --- S.W.3d ----, 2014 WL 185035 (Tex. Jan. 17, 2014).

 In Ewing, a general contractor had constructed some tennis courts for a school district. After construction was completed, the tennis courts began cracking and became unsuitable for use. The school district sued the general contractor for repairs, claiming the work had not been performed in a good and workmanlike manner.  

The general contractor sought defense and indemnity from its liability insurer, but the insurer denied coverage. In the ensuing coverage lawsuit in federal court, the insurer relied on the contractual-liability exclusion in the policy to deny it had any obligation to defend or indemnify the general contractor. 

Contractual-liability exclusions are common in commercial general liability policies in Texas.  The provision at issue in Ewing excluded coverage for property damage "for which the insured is obligated to pay damages by reason of the assumption of liability in a contract or agreement.” The construction contract with the school district required the general contractor to perform its work in a good and workmanlike manner. As the school district claimed the problems with the tennis courts resulted from the general contractor's failure to meet this standard, the insurer argued the contractual-liability exclusion applied. 

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer based on the contractual-liability exclusion. The Fifth Circuit initially agreed with the district court, but then vacated its opinion and certified the question of whether the exclusion applied to the Texas Supreme Court. The Texas Supreme Court held that the exclusion does not apply.

Central to the Court’s decision was an opinion issued several years ago that interpreted the contractual-liability exclusion. In Gilbert Texas Construction, L.P. v. Underwriters at Lloyd’s London, a contractual-liability exclusion excluded coverage for claims based on liability outside of what the general contractor would have had absent the contract. 327 S.W.3d 118 (Tex. 2010). Specifically, the contractor in Gilbert had agreed to assume liability for damage caused to adjacent landowners' property. 

The Ewing Court distinguished its holding in Gilbert by pointing out that Gilbert addressed whether a CGL policy’s contractual liability exclusion applied to exclude indemnity coverage for a third party’s property-damage claim where the only basis underlying the claim was the insured’s contractual agreement to be responsible for the damage. The contractual agreement at issue in Gilbert specifically obligated Gilbert to repair or pay for damage “resulting from a failure to comply with the requirements of th[e] contract,” thus extending Gilbert’s obligations beyond what would exist under general principles of law.
            In Ewing, the general contractor's agreement to construct the work in a good and workmanlike manner did not enlarge its obligations beyond any general common-law duty it might otherwise have. In Texas, contractors are obligated to perform their work with skill and care even absent an express contractual provision requiring them to do so. The Court reasoned that the exclusion “means what it says,” and excludes liability for damages the insured assumes by contract, such that “assumption of liability” means liability for damages that exceeds the liability an insured would have under general law.  Thus, the Court concluded that a general contractor who agrees to perform its construction work in a good and workmanlike manner, without more, does not enlarge its duty to exercise ordinary care in fulfilling its contract and does not “assume liability” for damages arising out of its defective work so as to trigger the Contractual Liability Exclusion. 
            This decision is generally positive for contractors insured under CGL policies in Texas, as it reduces the substantial uncertainty about coverage of property-damage claims based on construction defects that arose after the Gilbert decision was issued in 2010. However, as the Court acknowledged in Ewing, CGL policies are not performance bonds. Claims based on faulty workmanship are often excluded from coverage by other exclusions specific to the construction industry. For example, CGL policies often exclude claims for property damage to the insured's own work under the "your work" exclusion.

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