Outside the Coverage Period but Still Covered: New Jersey's Warning to Insurers in Construction Defect Matters
By: Jacqueline A. Muttick, Esq. & Marc Shortino, Esq.
Associate, New Jersey Partner, New Jersey
Date: October 19, 2017
On October 10, 2017, the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed the “continuous-trigger” theory of insurance coverage in Air Master & Cooling, Inc. v. Selective Insurance Company of America, __ N.J. Super. __, Docket No. A-5415-15T3 (App. Div. Oct. 10, 2017). The Court found that the continuous trigger theory of insurance coverage applies “to third-party liability claims involving progressive damage to property caused by an insured’s allegedly defective construction work” and that the “last pull” of the trigger for ascertaining the end of a covered occurrence “happens when the essential nature and scope of the property damage first becomes known, or when one would have sufficient reason to know of it.” Id. (slip op. at 3).
The insured, Air Master & Cooling, Inc. (“Air Master”), was hired as a subcontractor to perform heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (“HVAC”) work at a condominium building project. Between November 2005 and April 2008, Air Master installed condenser units on the roof and HVAC devices within each unit. Air Master also had a number of Commercial General Liability (“CGL”) insurance policies during and after this work, including a policy through Penn National Insurance Company in effect from about June 22, 2014 through June 22, 2009, a policy through Selective Insurance Company of America (“Selective”) effective June 22, 2009 through June 22, 2012, and a policy from Harleysville Insurance Company (“Harleysville”) covering June 22, 2012 through June 22, 2015.
In the beginning of 2008, unit owners began to notice water infiltration in their individual units. Specifically, by February 2008, as reported in a news article, at least one unit owner noticed leaks in the walls and windows of his unit. A May 3, 2010 expert consultant report found roof damage caused by moisture from water infiltration, and recommended removal and replacement of those damaged areas of the roof. That expert was unable to determine when the moisture infiltration occurred. Individual unit owners and the condominium association filed suit against the project’s developer and other defendants for property damage, and those defendants brought third-party complaints against subcontractors, including Air Master.
Air Master sought defense and indemnity from its insurers under its CGL policies, and filed a declaratory judgment action against both Selective and Harleysville when those insurers disclaimed coverage. Selective’s CGL policy stated, in part, that the policy provided coverage for property damage occurring “during the policy period.” The policy defined “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” The policy also defined “property damage” as “physical injury to tangible property, including all resulting loss of use of that property. All such loss of use shall be deemed to occur at the time of the physical injury that caused it.” “Property damage” included the “loss of use of tangible property that is not physically injured” and that loss “shall be deemed to occur at the time of the ‘occurrence’ that caused it.” Id. (slip op. at 7).
Selective moved for summary judgment, arguing its policy did not cover water damage that materialized or manifested before the policy coverage began in June 2009. Air Master opposed that motion, arguing that the continuous-trigger theory of coverage applied and that coverage continued until the “last pull” of the trigger of injury occurs. Air Master also argued that manifestation occurs when it is known, or reasonably knowable, that damage is attributable to the work of the insured, which occurred in May 2010 with the issuing of the expert report. The trial judge granted summary judgment, ultimately finding that while the continuous-trigger theory of coverage applied, the damage manifested prior to the start of Selective’s policy period. Air Master appealed that determination.
On appeal, the Appellate Division also found that the continuous-trigger doctrine applies to claims for third-party, progressive property damage in construction defect litigation. “[T]he continuous-trigger theory recognizes that, because certain harms … will progressively develop over time, ‘the date of the occurrence should be the continuous period from exposure to manifestation.’” Id. (slip op. at 12) (quoting Owens-Illinois, Inc. v. United Insurance Co., 138 N.J. 437, 454-56 (1994)) (applying the continuous-trigger theory in the context of property damage claims arising from the installation of asbestos-related products). “Under such a continuous-trigger approach, ‘all the insurers over that period [are] liable for the continuous development’” of the damage. Id. (quoting Owens-Illinois, Inc., 138 N.J. at 450-51). “[T]he continuous-trigger approach requires multiple successive insurers up to the point of manifestation to cover a loss,” which the Court noted provides more coverage for claims and encourages insurers to monitor developing risks. Id. (slip op. at 13) (citing Owens-Illinois, Inc., 138 N.J. at 458-59). The Appellate Division stated that the doctrine was not unfair to insurers, but instead required them to bear a portion of the coverage burden that accumulated while the property harm had not yet manifested, as occurs in construction defect litigation where defects are not immediately obvious. Id. (slip op. at 17) (citing The Palisades at Fort Lee Condominium Association, Inc. v. 100 Old Palisade, LLC, __ N.J. __, Docket No. A-101/102/103/104-15 (2017) (slip op. at 34)).
The Appellate Division also held that the “last pull” or “end” point of coverage under the continuous-trigger theory occurs when there is an “essential” manifestation of the injury, which is the “revelation of the inherent nature and scope of that injury.” Id. (slip op. at 25). That manifestation does not require that the damage be shown to be attributable to the conduct of a specific insured, as such an analysis would be highly fact-dependent and require lengthy discovery to determine. Id. (slip op. at 19). Instead, the “last pull” should be “a date of initial manifestation that is common to all parties – regardless of which contractor or subcontractor may be ‘at fault’ for the occurrence.” Id. (slip op. at 21).
Using the above analysis, the Court determined that while the continuous-trigger doctrine applied to the third-party, progressive property damage claims asserted in the construction defect litigation, the “last pull” or “essential” manifestation could not be determined by the record presented on appeal. Specifically, it was unclear what defects were or reasonably could have been revealed between the time of the first unit owner’s complaint in February 2008 and the start of Selective’s CGL policy in June 2009.
The application of the continuous-trigger doctrine to third-party, progressive property damage claims in New Jersey construction defect litigation impacts insurers who may be held liable for occurrences that would otherwise be outside the insured’s policy period. It also, as noted by the Appellate Division, distributes risk to several insurers which may have the impact of resolving claims earlier in litigation through settlement. Insurers will need to be aware that occurrences outside of the policy period may still result in risk on the policy under this ruling.
 Harleysville also obtained summary judgment and Air Master did not appeal that determination.
| condominiums, construction defect, Gartner + Bloom, Jacqueline A. Muttick, Marc Shortino, New Jersey Supreme Court, statute of limitations, statute of repose, The Palisades at Fort Lee Conndominium
By: Jacqueline A. Muttick, Esq.
Associate, New Jersey
Date: September 19, 2017
On September 14, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court in The Palisades at Fort Lee Condominium Association, Inc. v. 100 Old Palisade, LLC, articulated when the accrual date of the six year statute of limitations for construction defect claims accrues. The Court held that a construction defect claim accrues when the building’s owner, or a subsequent owner, knows or should have known though reasonable diligence about the existence of an actionable claim. Under the statute of limitations, the owner then has six years in which to bring a claim. For the purposes of the statute of limitations, a subsequent owner of the property stands in the shoes of a prior owner with regard to notice, so the statute of limitations begins to run upon notice to any prior owner.
This litigation was instituted by Plaintiff The Palisades at Fort Lee Condominium Association (“Condominium Association”), who asserted construction defects at The Palisades. Palisades A/V Acquisitions Co., LLC (“A/V Acquisitions”), owned and developed The Palisades, hiring a general contractor who subsequently retained various subcontractors for the project. The architect certified the project as “substantially complete” on May 1, 2002. A/V Acquisitions then rented units for the following two years before selling the property to 100 Old Palisade, LLC (“Old Palisade”), which converted the rentals to condominiums. Old Palisade’s expert noted some defects at the property but no structural concerns, and a report reflecting the same was attached to the public offering statement and master deed. Old Palisade relinquished control to the Condominium Association in July 2006. The Condominium Association then hired its own expert who found additional construction defects and issued a report in June 2007. The Plaintiff subsequently filed suit against the general contractor and other entities in March 2009 and continued to add defendants to the lawsuit through the next year.
Since substantial completion of the building occurred in May 2002, and the trial court determined that the six-year statute of limitations began running at that time, it followed that suit should have been filed by May 2008. Since the Condominium Association did not institute proceedings until after May 2008, the trial court dismissed those claims. Upon appeal, the Appellate Division reversed utilizing the “discovery rule”, finding that the construction defect claims did not accrue until the Condominium Association had full unit-owner control of the building and became aware of the claims through its expert. The New Jersey Supreme Court has now held that neither the standard utilized by the trial court nor the one employed by the Appellate Division were correct.
The statute of limitations for tort-based property claims under N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1 requires instituting claims within six years of the date of accrual. Accrual of a claim begins when a reasonable person with ordinary diligence would be alerted that there was an injury due to another’s fault. Id. (slip op. at 19) (quoting Caravaggio v. D’Agostini, 166 N.J. 237, 246 (2001)). Accrual does not begin to run against an unknown third party until the plaintiff has evidence of that third party’s involvement, which may result in different accrual times against different defendants. Id. (slip op. at 23-24) (quoting Caravaggio, 166 N.J. at 248-250). Also applicable in determining accrual is the discovery rule, which holds that the time limit to bring a claim under an applicable statute of limitations does not begin to accrue until the plaintiff knew or should have known with reasonable diligence that an actionable claim existed against a defendant. Utilizing the statute of limitations and the discovery rule, the Court here determined that “[a] construction-defect lawsuit must be filed within six years from the time that the building’s original or subsequent owners first knew or, through the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have known of the basis for a cause of action.” Id. (slip op. at 6-7) (emphasis in original).
Furthermore, “[a] subsequent owner stands in no better position than a prior owner in calculating the limitations period. If a prior owner knew or reasonably should have known of a basis for a construction-defect action, the limitations period began at that point.” Id. (slip op. at 7). Since a subsequent owner to a property takes title subject to the original owner’s rights, if the original owner knew or should have known of a construction defect claim then the subsequent owner will stand in the original owner’s shoes with regard to the statute of limitations. Id. (slip op. at 28). In other words, “[a] cause of action, for purposes of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1, accrues when someone in the chain of ownership first knows or reasonably should know of an actionable claim against an identifiable party.” Id. (slip op. at 29) (citing O’Keeffe v. Snyder, 83 N.J. 478, 502 (1980)).
This accrual analysis applies even in situations involving condominium associations. In this matter, the first owner, A/V Acquisitions, was the developer and the Condominium Association was a subsequent buyer. As such, if a prior owner knew or should have known of a construction defect claim, then the statute of limitations began to accrue before the Condominium Association took ownership of the property. Since there is a question as to when the statute of limitations began to accrue, the Court remanded the litigation to the trial court for a Lopez hearing on this issue. Id. (slip op. at 7) (citing Lopez v. Swyer, 62 N.J. 267 (1973)).
The Supreme Court also stressed that the 10-year statute of repose in construction defect cases remains in effect. The statute of repose, N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1(a), requires all construction defect claims against construction professionals be brought within ten years of the date of substantial completion. Id. (slip op. at 32-33). The six-year statute of limitations, in conjunction with the discovery rule, determines when a claim must be brought and the statute of repose sets an outside limit of ten years for those claims. Therefore, as noted by the Court, if a claim accrued eight years after substantial completion, the plaintiff in such a matter would have two years to bring a claim before having that claim barred by the statute of repose. Id. (slip op. at 33).
There remains the unresolved issue raised by defendants regarding the claims barred by the statute of repose. The defendants noted that the statute of repose appears to bar claims involving “defective and unsafe” conditions arising from construction. Defendants were concerned that the statute of repose could be interpreted as barring those conditions that are both defective and unsafe, potentially leaving viable claims that only regard defects alone. A reading of the statute in this manner could result in a situation in which a claimant is able to bring a construction defect claim outside of the ten-year statute of repose. Utilizing the example provided by the Court, the instance could arise if a claim accrues eight years after substantial completion but does not impact safety and is therefore timely filed fourteen years after substantial completion. The Court declined to opine on this issue and noted that the wording of the statue could be addressed by the Legislature.
The takeaway from this ruling is that construction defect claims do not accrue upon substantial completion but instead accrue when the building’s owner (or predecessor owner) knows or should have known though reasonable diligence about the existence of an actionable claim. The owner then has six years in which to bring a claim. This accrual date does not re-start when a new owner takes possession of the property but is instead imputed to each subsequent owner. The accrual date also may vary as to different defendants, depending on when the owner was or should have been aware of the claim. The ten-year statute of repose remains in effect and bars claims filed ten years after substantial completion, however the Court did not directly address in this opinion what claims the statute of repose specifically bars.
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