On October 9, 2018, The Ohio Supreme Court issued its anticipated Decision in Ohio Northern University v. Charles Construction Services, Inc., et al., Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4057 holding that a subcontractor’s faulty work is not an “occurrence” under a commercial general liability (“CGL”) policy. The Court determined that in the commercial construction setting, an insurer underwriting and issuing CGL coverage is not required to defend or indemnify its policyholder or any named insured against claims for property damage caused by a subcontractor’s faulty workmanship.
A Review of Westfield Inc. Co. v. Custom Agri Sys., Inc. (2012) 133 Ohio St.3d 476, 2012-Ohio-4712, 979 N.E.2d 269
In reaching this Decision, the Court re-visited its 2012 holding in Westfield Inc. Co. v. Custom Agri Sys., Inc. In this earlier case, Custom Agri, as a subcontractor, had allegedly faultily constructed a steel grain storage bin. Custom Agri was an insured under a CGL policy issued to it by Westfield Insurance which covered property damage caused by an “occurrence.” Westfield Inc. Co. v. Custom Agri Sys., Inc., 133 Ohio St.3d 476, 2012-Ohio-4712, 979 N.E.2d 269 at ¶ 3.At the trial court level, Westfield intervened, seeking declaratory judgment and a determination that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Custom Agri, inasmuch as all claims were related to Custom Agri’s own work and did not involve “property damage” caused by an “occurrence”, as those terms were defined within the Westfield policy. Ohio N. Univ. v. Charles Constr. Servs., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4057 at ¶¶ 13-15, citing Westfield Inc. Co. v. Custom Agri Sys., Inc., 133 Ohio St.3d 476, 2012-Ohio-4712, 979 N.E.2d 269.
The Ohio Supreme Court ultimately decided that the Westfield’s policy definition of “occurrence” as being an “accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions” did not include property damage caused by the insured contractor’s own faulty work. Ohio N. Univ. v. Charles Constr. Servs., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4057, citing Westfield Inc. Co. v. Custom Agri Sys., Inc., 133 Ohio St.3d 476, 2012-Ohio-4712, 979 N.E.2d 269 at ¶¶ 11-14. The Court reasoned that because an “accident” inherently involves fortuity, and faulty work is not fortuitous, there was no coverage under the Westfield CGL policy related to claims for property damage caused by faulty work. Id. at ¶ 18.
While Custom Agri Sys. was a subcontractor and its policy may have included a products-completed operations-hazard (“PCOH”) clause as well as a subcontractor clause, the Court determined that these separate provisions were not addressed directly. Now, and in its most recent Decision on the issue, the Ohio Supreme Court has directly addressed the effect of PCOH and subcontractor clauses. Id. at ¶ 19.
Ohio Northern University v. Charles Construction Services, Inc., et al. (2018)
Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4057
In Ohio Northern University v. Charles Construction Services, Inc., et al., Ohio Northern University contracted with Charles Construction Services, Inc. to construct the University Inn and Conference Center. The contract required Charles Construction to maintain a CGL policy that included a PCOH clause. Charles Constr. at ¶ 4. Charles Construction obtained a CGL policy with both a PCOH clause as well as a subcontractor clause from Cincinnati Insurance Company. The policy included terms specific to work performed by subcontractors. Charles Construction paid an additional premium for the PCOH coverage. Id. at ¶ 5.
After work was completed, Ohio Northern University discovered water damage from leaks believed to be caused by defective work of Charles Construction and its subcontractors. Ohio Northern University filed suit, and Charles Construction answered and filed third-party complaints against its subcontractors. Charles Construction submitted its claim to Cincinnati Insurance Company and asked that it defend and indemnify Charles Construction. In response, Cincinnati Insurance Company intervened at the trial court level, seeking declaratory judgment and a determination that it was not obligated to either defend or indemnify Charles Construction, due to the earlier Decision in Custom Agri. Id. at ¶¶ 7-8.
The particular PCOH clausecovered property damage “occurring away from premises you own or rent and arising out of *** ‘your work’ except *** work that has not yet been completed or abandoned”. Charles Constr. at ¶ 24. It further excluded coverage for property damage to the policyholder’s work arising out of it or any part of it. However the Court specifically stated the exclusion did not apply if the damaged work was performed by a subcontractor. Id. at ¶ 26.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s Analysis
Despite the Cincinnati Insurance Co. CGL policy containing both PCOH language as well as subcontractor-specific language, the Court found there was no coverage for the subcontractor’s faulty work. Specifically, the Court found the PCOH and subcontractor-specific language had no effect, since the damage was not due to an “occurrence” under the Coverage A portion of the Cincinnati Insurance Co. CGL policy:
“The language within the Coverage A portion of the CGL policy is critical to the policy’s overall effect. It states that CIC agrees to pay for property damage under certain circumstances. But the damage must be due to an “occurrence,” which the policy defines as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” Again, there is no question that the water-related damage to the inn was “property damage” and was discovered after the work had been completed. But unless there was an “occurrence,” the PCOH and subcontractor language has no effect, despite the fact that Charles Construction paid additional money for it.
If the subcontractors’ faulty work were fortuitous, the PCOH and subcontractor-specific terms would require coverage. But as we explained in Custom Agri, CGL policies are not intended to protect owners from ordinary “business risks” that are normal, frequent or predictable consequences of doing business that the insured can manage. Here we cannot say that the subcontractors’ faulty work was fortuitous.”
Ohio N. Univ. v. Charles Constr. Servs., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4057 at ¶¶ 28-29, citing Westfield Inc. Co. v. Custom Agri Sys., Inc., 133 Ohio St.3d 476, 2012-Ohio-4712, 979 N.E.2d 269.
The Court acknowledged its decision to be contrary to recent decisions of other courts, and cited its duty to look to the plain and ordinary meaning of the language in the CGL policy to find the intent of the parties. Id. at ¶ 32.
It seems clear from this Decision that the Court considers faulty construction work to be an anticipated business risk of a contractor or general contractor, and will not require an insurer to defend or indemnify against claims or damages arising out of faulty work, at least in cases where a CGL policy exists limiting covered damages to those caused by an “occurrence.”
Contractor and subcontractors should revisit their current insurance risk plans and coverages, and work directly with their respective brokers, agents and insurers to determine the current status of their risk coverages.
We also recommend those contractors that are either anticipating or presently involved in pending litigation reach out to their insurers, agents and/or brokers, immediately, for further guidance.