Poisoning the Well: Washington Supreme Court Applies Efficient Proximate Cause to Eviscerate Pollution Exclusion in Liability Policy

Carlton Fields
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Carlton Fields

Professionals and practitioners in first party property insurance are likely familiar with the efficient proximate cause rule, which requires an insurance policy to provide coverage where “a covered peril sets in motion a causal chain,” even if subsequent causes-in-fact of the loss are excluded by the policy. As indicated by our previous coverage [1, 2, 3] of this doctrine, this can be a confusing analysis that leads to unpredictable results.

Until recently, the efficient proximate cause rule has only been applied to first party insurance policies. But this is no longer the case, at least in the state of Washington. In Xia, et al. v. ProBuilders Specialty Insurance Company, et al., Case No. 92436-8 (April 27, 2017), the Washington Supreme Court held that, due to the efficient proximate cause rule, a pollution exclusion in a CGL policy did not apply to a claim for bodily injury from carbon monoxide inhalation, because the release of the pollutant was caused by negligence. Moreover, the consequences of the insurer’s failure to consider efficient proximate cause were severe; despite no precedent for the application of this rule to a liability policy, the court also held that the insurer acted in bad faith by failing to defend the claim based on efficient proximate cause.

In Xia, the claimant bought a house constructed by Issaquah Highlands 48 LLC (“Issaquah”), which had a CGL policy issued by ProBuilders. Soon after moving in to the home, the claimant became sick due to inhalation of carbon monoxide. The release of the carbon monoxide was caused by improper installation of an exhaust vent.

After Issaquah notified ProBuilders of the claim, ProBuilders denied coverage under the policy’s pollution exclusion, which excluded, in pertinent part:

Bodily injury, property damage, or personal injury caused by, resulting from, attributable to, contributed to, or aggravated by the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, seepage, migration, release or escape of pollutants, or from the presence of, or exposure to, pollution of any form whatsoever, and regardless of the cause of the pollution or pollutants.

This Exclusion applies regardless of the cause of the pollution and whether any other cause of said bodily injury, property damage, or personal injury acted jointly, concurrently, or in any sequence with said pollutants or pollution. This Exclusion applies whether any other cause of the bodily injury, property damage, or personal injury would otherwise be covered under this insurance.

After receiving a $2 million judgment and an assignment of the claim against ProBuilders from Issaquah, the claimant filed a declaratory judgment action against ProBuilders for breach of contract and bad faith. ProBuilders won summary judgment on a different exclusion in the trial court, which the Washington Court of Appeals rejected. However, the appellate court affirmed the judgment on the alternative ground that the pollution exclusion applied.

The Washington Supreme Court took up the issue of whether the pollution exclusion applied to relieve the insurer of its duty to defend. Ultimately, the court held that although the insurer did not err in determining that the plain language of its pollution exclusion applied to the release of carbon monoxide into Xia’s home, because the efficient proximate cause of the claimant’s loss was a covered peril – the negligent installation of a hot water heater – the pollution exclusion could not bar coverage despite its clear application to the facts of the case.

The court summarily dismissed any claim that efficient proximate cause had not previously applied to third party policies, stating:

We have never before suggested that the rule of efficient proximate cause is limited to any one particular type of insurance policy. Instead, the rule has broad application whenever a covered occurrence under the policy-whatever that may be-is determined to be the efficient proximate cause of the loss.

Having established that the efficient proximate cause rule applied, the court held that the fact that the pollution exclusion unambiguously applied did not matter, because the underlying complaints alleged that the release of the pollutant was caused by negligence. Further:

If ProBuilders sought to avoid liability for damages resulting from particular acts of negligence, it certainly could have written specific exclusions to that effect-for instance, an exclusion for acts of negligence relating to the installation of home fixtures generally or hot water heaters specifically. . . . Such an exclusion may have been foreseeable given that this policy was for the construction of a new home, but no such exclusion is found in this insurance policy. Issaquah Highlands paid valuable premiums for an insurance policy providing broad coverage for all forms of negligence except those acts specifically excluded, and it was a covered act of negligence that was the efficient proximate cause of Xia’s loss.

The court accordingly granted judgment as a matter of law to the claimant on both breach of contract and bad faith.

The key to the court’s reasoning appears to be in its statement that “[h]aving received valuable premiums for protection against harm caused by negligence, an insurer may not avoid liability merely because an excluded peril resulted from the initial covered peril.” The Xia decision essentially establishes a rule that, regardless of the type of policy, insurers cannot draft exclusions that will be upheld “when two or more perils combine in sequence to cause a loss and a covered peril is the predominant or efficient cause of the loss.”

Two dissenting justices took issue with the majority decision’s extension of the application of the efficient proximate cause rule to CGL policies, and the finding of bad faith when no other case prior to this one had ever applied the efficient proximate cause rule to CGL policies.

Already known as an unkind venue to insurers, the Xia decision demonstrates that, at least in the state of Washington, insurers cannot be confident that clear and unambiguous policy exclusions will be upheld (at least in multi-peril situations), and should be wary of drawing distinctions in the application of legal doctrines based on the type of insurance policy at issue.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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