New case affirms broad duty to defend in construction defect case where damage dates unclear

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A new case from Oregon deals with a recurring problem in construction defect litigation—the absence of clear dates in the complaint regarding when damage is alleged to have occurred. Frequently, a plaintiff will allege that defects in a construction project have caused property damage to other elements of the project, but the complaint is often silent as to when the damage allegedly began. We have long argued that, since the duty to defend exists if there is any “potential” of covered liability, there is a potential that damage happened before that project was completed, or at any time after completion, triggering all policies in that time frame. This implicates the policies in effect both during the course of operations and after operations are completed. This point is particularly important if some or all of the policies exclude liability falling within the completed operations hazard. This was the situation in Breese Homes, Inc. v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, 353 Or. 112 (2012). There, the court rejected Farmers argument that a claim was excluded by a “products/completed operations hazard” exclusion unless the insured could produce facts showing that damage in fact occurred prior to the completion of the project. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the duty to defend was governed by the complaint, which clearly encompassed the possibility that damage occurred prior to completion, and that the insured had no burden to establish any additional facts to support that potential.

While Breese involves a simple and straightforward application of established duty to defend law, the case provides helpful authority in countering the specious positions taken by many carriers on this issue.