A unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court opinion has affirmed the rights of an aggrieved plaintiff to recover counsel fees incurred in prosecuting relief through a declaratory judgment; enforcing a duty to defend owed by a general liability carrier to a contractor defendant in a construction defect action.
In Occihifinto v. Olivo Constructionn, Inc., et als, the plaintiff hired a masonry contractor to perform work on an addition to plaintiff’s warehouse. Plaintiff sued the mason and the mason’s general liability carrier (Mercer) refused to defend or indemnify, instead filing a declaratory judgment action. Plaintiff aggressively prosecuted relief against the carrier in the declaratory judgment action, acting as a surrogate for the insured masonry contractor.
Although the trail court and Appellate Division ruled otherwise, the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the aggrieved plaintiff’s entitlement to recover his counsel fees under R.4:42-9 (a) (6), which provides for an award of counsel fees in “an action upon a liability or indemnity policy of insurance in favor of a successful claimant.”
The Supreme Court determined the plaintiff was a successful claimant by vindicating his position in the declaratory judgment action; establishing the carrier’s duty to defend the mason. The award of counsel fees was allowed to stand, even though the plaintiff was unsuccessful in establishing liability in the underlying litigation.
This is not only the correct outcome, but should embolden and inspire aggrieved plaintiffs to take aggressive action in declaratory judgment actions spawned by underlying defect claim litigation. Insured defendant contractors are often disinclined to aggressively defend their position or lack the incentive and resolve of the underlying plaintiff; whose ability to recover is contingent upon gaining access to available insurance proceeds, often as the singular means to obtain relief.
This ruling is soundly based upon the express language of the rule, which provides for this remedy, consistent with the practical realities presented by these types of actions. Where the obligation to carry the burden of prosecuting what would otherwise be the insured’s rightful position to otherwise vindicate is foisted upon the underlying plaintiff, logic dictates that the court avail the plaintiff of the basic relief otherwise available to the insured.
This should give insurance carriers otherwise inclined to shirk their rightful responsibility to provide a defense or indemnity under a general liability policy in the construction defect context, to think twice before arbitrarily seeking to avoid responsibility. Given the additional consequence of exposure to counsel fees, one can only hope that insurance carriers will be more circumspect in determining when and whether to reserve their rights, or seek to deny coverage. At a minimum, this ruling should serve to level the playing field in this arena, balancing the scales decidedly in favor of an aggrieved plaintiff.