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London Bridge might not be falling down but walls of Mrs. White’s House collapsed

In White v. Metropolitan Direct Prop. and Cas. Ins., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102959 (E.D. Pa. July 29, 2014), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment declaring a homeowner’s insurer did not owe coverage for the collapse.

White filed suit against her homeowner’s insurer, Metropolitan Direct Property and Casualty Ins. Co. (Metropolitan) for first party property damages allegedly incurred as a result of the “sudden collapse that was the result of excessive rainfall.” Plaintiff asserted a claim for coverage and a claim for bad faith. After bifurcating the bad faith claim, the court granted summary judgment to Metropolitan.

Metropolitan had denied coverage was owed for two claims presented by the plaintiff. Particularly, the plaintiff alleged her property was damaged in March 2011, when the exterior rear wall of the house collapsed. She also presented a claim in August 2011, alleging damage to the rear wall which caused damage to the dining room, kitchen and two bedrooms. Following both claims, Metropolitan investigated and retained an engineer to inspect the damage. On both occasions, Metropolitan’s engineer opined that the cause of the collapse was not a particular rain event, but the result of on-going failure and deterioration due to a lack of maintenance. Metropolitan’s expert found long-term and ongoing water infiltration via deteriorated mortar joints, cracks in the brick work and roof leaks. In fact, the plaintiff’s home had suffered water damage the prior year when insured by another carrier.

In its summary judgment motion, the insurer argued that the policy does not cover collapse and loss caused by weather where the collapse was not caused by a single rain event but rather long-term, ongoing water infiltration. The insurer maintained that the plaintiff presented no facts to establish the wall collapse was “sudden and accidental.” On the day before the first collapse, the City of Philadelphia issued a violation for the house, designating the premises as “unsafe,” the wall was loose and/or missing brickwork and “is in danger of collapse.”

The insurer’s weather conditions exclusion stated that sudden and accidental direct physical loss or damage to the property is not covered in the event of collapse where weather conditions contributed in any way with a collapse. Moreover, the policy excluded construction defects. Addressing the coverage afforded for collapse, the court noted that the claims did not fall within the limited instances where collapse is a covered loss under the additional coverages of the policy. Particularly, the insurer presented evidence that the collapse was caused by decay and deterioration that was NOT hidden.

Despite the fact that the plaintiff presented an expert report which opined that the collapse was not caused by lack of maintenance because the old style of bricks (salmon brick using an early firing method) prevented observation or detection of a problem with the brick, the court found that there were no genuine issues of material fact as to the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim. Particularly, the court held that the two rain events which the plaintiff advanced for the collapse were excluded from coverage.

Tressler Comments

Despite the plaintiff’s expert report, summary judgment was sought by the insurer and granted. Thorough exploration of the facts is essential for insurers defending first party property claims.