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No Vacancy: Structures on Property Can Disqualify Coverage (PA)

March 19, 2021

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In a recent Western District of Pennsylvania case, <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Morton-v.-Gardner.pdf">Morton v. Gardner</a>,</em> the court addressed what constituted vacant land under the insurance policy at issue. By way of background, after a dead tree on the defendant’s property fell onto the plaintiff’s vehicle, an issue arose as to whether the defendant’s insurer was required to pay for the damage. At the time of the incident, the property was not being used by the defendant and had not been used in many years – the only buildings on the property were five dilapidated structures that were essentially abandoned by the defendant. The defendant, a citizen of Georgia who had inherited the land, argued that since he did not use or actively maintain the property, it was essentially vacant and therefore covered under his insurance policy, which expressly covered vacant land as an insured location.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">However, the WDPA disagreed. Looking to Pennsylvania property law, as well as various definitions of the word “vacant” and prior case history, the court determined that the structures in place on the parcel of land rendered the land not vacant. The court was unpersuaded by the argument that the structures were abandoned and unoccupied themselves, distinguishing that the vacancy of the land had nothing to do with the status of the structures on the land. The court further held that the word “vacant” was not ambiguous and should not be construed as such.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Based on this analysis, the court held that the insurer did not owe coverage to the defendant-insured, thus, creating an important distinction between vacant land and unoccupied property – in that, in order to constitute vacant land, there cannot be structures located on the land.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Abby Wilson for her contribution to this post. If you have any questions or comments, please contact <a href="mailto:chayes@wcmlaw.com">Colleen Hayes</a>.</p>

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