Application of Exclusion to Drywall Claim Does Not Render Coverage Illusory

Brian Margolies   Brian Margolies, Partner, Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry LLP

The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida has held on several occasions that the pollution exclusion applies to Chinese drywall claims.  See, e.g., CDC Builders, Inc. v. Amerisure Mut. Ins. Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114509 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 16, 2011); Gen. Fid. Ins. Co. v. Foster, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103618 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 24, 2011).  In its recent decision Colony Ins. Co. v. Total Contracting & Roofing, Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120269 (S.D. Fla. Oct. 18, 2011), the Southern District of Florida added to this line of cases by holding that a hazardous materials exclusion applied to drywall claims.  In doing so, the court rejected the insured's argument that application of the exclusion rendered coverage illusory.

The insured, Total Contracting, was sued for having allegedly installed defective drywall in a home that it renovated.  Underlying plaintiffs alleged that the drywall emitted sulfides and other noxious gases, resulting in property damage and bodily injury.  Total Contracting's insurer, Colony, denied coverage under a series of consecutively renewed general liability policies on the basis of a hazardous materials exclusion, applicable to bodily injury or property damage "which would not have occurred in whole or in part but for the actual or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of 'hazardous materials' at any time."  "Hazardous materials" was defined as "'pollutants', lead, asbestos, silica and materials containing them."  Thus, the exclusion tracked the language of a total pollution exclusion, but applied to a broader range of substances.

The underlying plaintiffs, who were parties to the declaratory judgment action, essentially conceded that the hazardous materials exclusion applied, as their suit against Total Contracting alleged that the drywall emitted gases that resulted in bodily injury and property damage.  Instead of challenging the applicability of the exclusion, underlying plaintiffs argued that application of the exclusion under the circumstances would render the policies illusory and thus violative of public policy.  The basis for this argument was that the exclusion contradicted in whole the coverage otherwise afforded under the policies.

The court initially agreed that based on Florida law concerning the pollution exclusion, as well as case law applying the pollution exclusion in the context of Chinese drywall, the policies' hazardous materials exclusion had clear application to the underlying suit.  The court went on to hold that the exclusion did not render coverage illusory, since the policies provided "coverage for a seemingly wide-range of business activities described as 'the contractors-subcontractors work.'"  The hazardous materials exclusion barred coverage for only a small portion of claims that otherwise fell within this coverage, and as such the exclusion could not be said to completely "contradict" the policies' insuring agreements.  In other words, the exclusion did not completely negate coverage under the policies.  In passing, the court noted that if underlying plaintiffs' argument were correct, then any policy with a hazardous materials exclusion (or a pollution exclusion) must be considered illusory, which would be an absurd result.

Chinese Drywall

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