Having construction work or renovations done on your home is certainly an exciting, but undoubtedly stressful time. In fact, the process from selecting a suitable (and experienced) contractor to completion of the project can be downright daunting at times. As a homeowner myself, who coincidentally is going through this very process as we speak, I know the difficulties of sifting through countless potential contractors, negotiating prices, and coordinating schedules and the like. As daunting as it may seem, there are certain steps a homeowner can take at the outset that will mitigate potential pitfalls during construction, ensure your project is constructed properly, mitigate construction disputes, and alleviate unnecessary stress.
A New Jersey trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Selective Insurance Company holding that the “continuous trigger” theory does not provide insurance coverage subsequent to the manifestation of damages that arose from a subcontractor’s negligence in the construction of a condominium development. The issue arose in the matter of Cypress Point Condominium Association v. Selective Way Insurance Company, et al., Docket No. HUD-L-936-14, 2015 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 721 (N.J. Super., Hudson Cnty. Mar. 30, 2015) (“Cypress Point”).
“The ‘continuous trigger’ theory holds that an occurrence occurs under an insurance policy each time damage accrues over a continuous period of time, from ‘exposure to manifestation’.” Cypress Point, at *12. Courts developed the “continuous trigger” theory to counter scientific uncertainties surrounding initial manifestations of damages typically at issue in environmental, toxic tort, and delay manifestation property damage claims. Id.
In Cypress Point, the Cypress Point Condominium Association (the “Association”) filed a Declaratory Judgment Action against Selective Way Insurance Company (“Selective”) seeking a declaratory judgment that Selective owed a duty to indemnify its insured, MDNA Framing, in connection with an underlying construction defect action filed by the Association. The Association filed an amended complaint in the underlying action on June 12, 2012, bringing claims against MDNA Framing, which was contracted to perform framing and window installation work in connection with the construction of the Cypress Point condominium development. Construction of the development commenced in 2002 and was substantially completed in 2004. Subsequent to the completion of construction, unit owners began to experience water infiltration around the interior windows. The Association’s liability expert found numerous defects related to MDNA Framing’s work, including missing flashings, a lack of a continuous water management system, and improper sealant application around the windows. The Association’s liability expert issued his initial report opining on these deficiencies on June 30, 2012.
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.