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Eastern District of Pennsylvania Determines Insurer’s Declaratory Action Unripe (PA)

December 21, 2018

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The Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently denied a Motion to Dismiss a Declaratory Judgment Complaint as premature when there was yet to be liability found against the insureds in the underlying actions.  In <a href="">First Specialty Insurance Corporation v. Hudson Palmer Homes, Inc. et al.</a>, the Court denied an insurer’s Motion to Dismiss and dismissed the matter without prejudice once it found the case to be unripe.

The underlying matter arose in state court and involved ten construction defect lawsuits that alleged systemic construction defects involving improperly installed stucco on multiple homes. At the time of the stucco installation, an insurance policy was issued to Hudson Palmer Homes, Inc. and the Cutler Group, Inc. (collectively, “Cutler”) by First Specialty Insurance Corporation (“First Specialty”).  This policy provided insurance for “property damage” caused by an “occurrence” defined in pertinent part as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.”  The policy at issue has a $1 million per “occurrence” limit and a $2 million aggregate limit for “products-completed operations.”

Stemming from the state court matter, First Specialty brought a declaratory judgment action to determine the extent of its coverage obligations under the policy.  First Specialty sought a ruling that: (1) all damages alleged arose out of a single occurrence and were subject to a $1 million per occurrent limit of liability; (2) First Specialty’s duty to defend and indemnify Cutler was to be extinguished after the $1 million per occurrence limit of liability; (3) any and all declarations necessary for the resolution of that dispute; and (4) an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.  Opposing this position, Cutler maintained that the damages were not subject to the single occurrence limitation and First Specialty’s Motion to Dismiss should be found unripe.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, liability had not been established within the state court action. Furthermore, First Specialty was not denying its duty to defend Cutler but only attempted to limit its exposure to the single occurrence limitation when it filed its Motion to Dismiss.  As such, the Court determined that First Specialty’s declaratory judgment actions was not ripe and must be dismissed without prejudice.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court determined that the parties lacked adverse interests because First Specialty had not contested its duty to Cutler in the underlying action and because any determination of First Specialty’s indemnification obligation would be premature until Cutler was actually held liable for any claim within the policy. The Court utilized the three-factor test laid out in <em>Step-Saver Data Sys., Inc. v. Wyse Tech.</em>to determine whether ripeness existed.  The three-factor test required the Court to evaluate: (1) the adversity of the interest of the parties; (2) the conclusiveness of the judicial judgment; and (3) the practical help, or utility, of that judgment.

First, the Court concluded that, because First Specialty did not dispute that it had a duty to defend Cutler under its policy, there was no adversity of interest.  Next, the Court determined that the insufficient record rendered the matter inconclusive and inappropriate for judicial resolution by way of declaratory judgment.  The Court emphasized that “[b]ecause there has been no ruling in the Underlying Actions on the conduct for which Cutler defendants are liable, the Court has no way to determine what conduct, if any, would provide for liability under the Policy.” Finally, when considering the utility of judgment, the Court determined it did not have an adequate record for ruling on First Specialty’s indemnity obligations and could not provide a declaratory judgment of “significant utility.”  As all three factors weighed against the finding of ripeness, the Court denied First Specialty’s Motion to Dismiss without prejudice.

Thanks to Zhanna Dubinsky for her contribution to this post. Please email <a href="">Vito A. Pinto</a> with any questions.

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