Thursday, May 22, 2008

Change In Citation Rule Can Have A Big Impact

An issue that comes up frequently in construction defect litigation is whether a contractor's General Liability policy provides coverage for damages to the building itself caused by the contractor's faulty construction. Many such cases have to do with weatherproofing: for example, if a building's windows are not weathertight because the contractors made a mistake, will their insurance cover the cost of repair?

I have been personally involved in several such cases, bringing one to the United States Court of Appeals. (B & T Masonry Constr. Co., Inc. v. Public Serv. Mut., Inc., 382 F.2d 36 (1st Cir. 2004).) The issue has always been whether approximately six exclusions apply, separately or together, to exclude all or some of the damages. The analysis can never be a quick one because each exclusion has to be analyzed separately under the facts of the case. The exclusions vary in the timing of when the damages had to be discovered, where in the building the damages were, whether the work was done by the insured or a subcontractor, and other factors. The exclusions overlap but don't always exclude all damages.

If a new citation rule announced in February by the Massachusetts Appeals Court had been in effect just a few months earlier, though, the entire exclusion analysis would arguably be unnecessary. The Massachusetts Appeals Court has stated in at least two unpublished Rule 1:28 decisions that a construction defect is not an occurrence. Mello Constr. Inc. v. Acadaia Ins., 70 Mass. Ap. Ct. 1004 (2007); Davenport v. U.S. Fidelity & Guar. Co., 56 Mass. App. Ct. 1109 (2002).

Rule 1:28 is a rule of the Appeals Court that allows a panel of Appeals Court judges to decide a case without circulating it to all the judges on the court. The theory is that such cases are so clear-cut that additional work by the court is unnecessary. Until February, citation to Rule 1:28 decisions was prohibited by the Appeals Court.

In a footnote in Chace v. Curran, the Appeals Court announced that Rule 1:28 decisions issued after February 25, 2008 "may be cited for their persuasive value but . . . not as binding precedent."

If the new rule had been in effect when Mello was issued, I would be much more likely to recommend that an insurer deny coverage outright based on the theory that a construction defect is not an occurrence, rather than relying on exclusions which, after a long analysis, may not exclude all damages.

So, although citation rules may seem picayune, they have far-reaching consequences.

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