Less than one week after placing readers on alert about the pending decision of Architex Association, Inc. v. Scottsdale Insurance Company, the Mississippi Supreme Court has issued its decision in that case addressing the following narrow issue with regard to a Commercial General Liability ("CGL") policy:
Whether the intentional act of hiring subcontractors by an insured general contractor precludes the possibility of coverage?
The Court found "that under Scottsdale’s CGL policy, the term ‘occurrence’ cannot be construed in such a manner as to preclude coverage for unexpected or unintended ‘property damage’ resulting from negligent acts or conduct of a subcontractor unless, otherwise excluded or the insured breaches its duties after loss." Slip Op. at page 27. Thus, "[f]aulty workmanship, defective work, et al., may be accidental, intentional, or neither." Slip Op. at page 23.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in ACS Construction Company v. CGU, 332 F.3d 885 (5th Cir. 2003) had previously concluded that since hiring a subcontractor is a deliberate and intentional decision by a general contractor, any subsequent act by the subcontractor must be intentional and not covered under the definition of an "occurrence". The insurance industry has used ACS to deny coverage for defective work by subcontractors, even though many general contractors purchased policies and paid premiums with the understanding that their CGL policy would provide coverage.
The Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision in Architex brings clarity to the issue stating that "[w]hile the alleged ‘property damage’ may have been ‘set in motion’ by Architex’s [the general contractor] hiring of the subcontractor, the ‘chain of events’ may not have ‘followed a course consciously devised and controlled by [Architex], without the unexpected intervention of any third person or extrinsic force.’" In other words, hiring a subcontractor will not preclude coverage under a CGL policy.
Even if the insurer does not unequivocally agree that there is coverage under the CGL policy, the insurer may agree to defend the general contractor under reservation of rights. This means the insurer will pay the general contractor for the cost associated with defending the claim of defective workmanship. This does not mean the insurer gets to select the attorney to defend the claim, it means the insurer must pay for the attorney the general contractor selects to defend the claim. Therefore, it would be wise for the general contractor to select a construction lawyer to defend the claim rather than the insurer’s preferred attorney who is likely to have experience in defending slip and fall cases and car wrecks and not complex construction defect cases.
The Architex decision is good news for general contractors. However, the decision also admonishes general contractors that there are other reasons for denial of coverage such as failure to give timely notice of a potential claim. Slip Op. at page 12, fn. 11. This means that general contractors should place their insurance carrier/agent on written notice of any potential claim for which the CGL policy might arguably provide coverage. Otherwise, coverage may ultimately be denied.