In a recent decision in Kane Builders, Inc. v. Continental Casualty Company, the United States District Court in New Jersey remanded back to state court the determination of whether Continental owed the builder defense and indemnity in connection with an underlying construction defect case which had been playing out in state court.
As is typical in these matters, the insurance carrier filed a declaratory judgment action in federal court notwithstanding the pendency of a then existing state court construction defect action instituted against Kane Builders, its insured. The underlying plaintiff asserted claims for damages for alleged defective building construction and other claims. The insured instituted claims in the state court action, also, putting in play whether Continental, its insurance carrier providing covered coverage under a general liability policy, was obligated to provide the builder with a defense and indemnity in the pending state court action.
The District Court ruled that logic dictated having the state court judge, who was overseeing the construction action, also address the coverage issues between the builder defendant and its carrier. Judicial economy was thus served by avoiding duplicative, piecemeal litigation. The District Court was unimpressed and held that the federal forum held “no special call,” under the circumstances.
We have seen it is typical in these circumstances for insurance carriers to want to litigate coverage issues in federal court, presumably because carriers see it as a more hospitable forum. As was the case here, logic dictates that coverage issues be adjudicated alongside construction defect and other underlying claims typically filed, as in this case, in the state court. This case demonstrates that federal judges are willing to remand matters back to state court under these circumstances.
It is not uncommon in construction defect “transition” litigation to have declaratory judgment actions filed by one or more defendants during the pendency of the litigation, as insurance coverage issues are of significance in these matters and carriers don’t always readily acknowledge their obligations to provide defense and indemnity, depending upon the language of the policy or policies at issue.
Defendants in these cases should not be bashful about putting coverage issues in play and we have seen that many courts are willing to also acknowledge the rights of the underlying plaintiff in these matters (often a Condominium Association) to advance coverage claims when, for example, the insured defendant builder or subcontractor is either no longer in business or lacking sufficient motivation to pursue its own carrier more aggressively.
We have argued successfully that while a judgment against a carrier during the pendency of an underlying construction defect claim can be premature, a determination as to whether coverage is afforded can and sometimes should be made while the underlying case is ongoing, assuming sufficient facts are available, or the court is in a position to make a coverage determination. The rules do not prevent this, procedurally, although insurance carriers often oppose claims by the underlying plaintiff directly against the carrier based upon case law which we have seen is sometimes not directly supportive of the positions advanced. This is an interesting issue, which tends to rear its head reasonably often in these cases.