In a June 25, 2015, to-be-published decision in Kaady v. Mid-Continent Casualty Co. the Ninth Circuit adopted a decidedly pro-policyholder interpretation of the oft-contested “known loss” provision that is standard in commercial general liability (CGL) policies, holding that an insured’s knowledge of damage to one part of a structure does not allow an insurer to deny coverage for  damage to other parts of the same structure or for a different type of damage to the structure.

Kaady, a masonry subcontractor, installed manufactured stone and masonry caps at a condominium project on Mount Hood.  After the project was complete Kaady was notified that there were cracks in the stone that he had installed.  Later that year Kaady bought a liability policy from Mid-Continent.  Kaady was then sued by the condo association, which alleged that his defective work had contributed to water damage to wood sheathing behind the manufactured stone, and to deck posts on which the masonry caps were sitting.

Mid-Continent denied coverage for those damages under its policy’s “known-loss” provision,  which stated that the policy “applies to . . . property damage only if . . . no insured . . . knew that the . . . property damage had occurred, in whole or in part.”  The policy also excluded coverage for property damage that is a “continuation, change or resumption” of “such [known] property damage.”  The policy defined “property damage” in part as “physical injury to tangible property.”

In the coverage lawsuit suit the insurer advanced two arguments to justify its denial:  1) that prior knowledge of  any damage to a structure means that any other damage to the same structure is a “known loss;” and 2) that the damage to the sheathing and posts was a “continuation change or resumption” of the cracking that the insured knew about.  The District Court granted summary judgment for Mid-Continent based on the known-loss provision.  The Ninth Circuit reversed.

The insurer argued that the policy’s references to “property” and “tangible property” included all portions of that “property,” and therefore that knowledge of damage to one portion of “the property” could be attributed to all later damage to that property.  The appeals court disagreed, pointing out that that interpretation conflicts with the way “property” is used throughout CGL policies.  Standard-form policies distinguish between different types of “property” and rely on those distinctions to exclude some kinds of “property” from coverage, such as the insured’s own “work” while providing coverage to other kinds of “property.”  Therefore, to be consistent, the known-loss provision must operate to allow coverage for damage to some “property” even if the insured knew about damage to other “property” within the same structure.  Moreover, because the known-loss provision talks about knowledge of “the property damage,” any damage different in type than the damage about which the insured had knowledge is not excluded by the policy.  In Kaady the damage (deterioration) to the sheathing and deck posts was different in type from the cracking that the insured knew about before buying the policy.

The court also rejected the second argument, holding that Mid-Continent had the burden on summary judgment of proving, through evidence, that the damage to the sheathing and posts was caused by the same cracks that the insured knew about before he bought the policy.  The insurer had failed to put on such evidence, and so summary judgment should not have been granted.

In this decision the Ninth Circuit adopted arguments that have been advanced by policyholders for years, but had not been the subject of a published Oregon state court ruling, creating some uncertainty. “Known-loss” disputes come up with some frequency, because Oregon law requires property owners to give notice to contractors of alleged defects and an opportunity to cure, and because “punch-list” provisions in standard construction contracts often require owners to give contractors an opportunity to fix problems that occur soon after construction.  This decision will therefore make it difficult for insurers that operate in good faith to deny claims based on “known loss.”