Justia Contracts Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Washington Supreme Court
New York Life Ins. Co. v. Mitchell
The federal district court in Washington State certified a question of law to the Washington Supreme Court. Washington law required group life insurance policies to have an incontestability clause providing that “the validity of the policy shall not be contested, except for nonpayment of premiums, after it has been in force for two years from its date of issue.” The certified question in this case asked whether an insurer could invalidate a life insurance policy after this two-year period on grounds that the policies were void ab initio or never “in force.” New York Life Insurance (NY Life) issued two life insurance policies to Lorenzo Mitchell, naming his nephew, Simon Mitchell, as the sole beneficiary. Lorenzo died more than two years after the policies were issued, and Simon sought to collect on the policies. NY Life became aware that Lorenzo had Down syndrome and lived with significant intellectual disabilities. These facts raised questions about the circumstances under which the policies were issued. NY Life sued Simon in federal district court seeking declaratory relief that the policies were void ab initio under three possible theories: imposter fraud, incapacity, and lack of an insurable interest. The Washington Supreme Court concluded NY Life’s first and third claims were not barred by that provision. “In contrast, lack of capacity does not, on its own, render an insurance contract void; it renders it at most voidable. Because a voidable contract is not void ab initio, we hold the incontestability provision bars NY Life’s second claim.” View "New York Life Ins. Co. v. Mitchell" on Justia Law
Dobson v. Archibald
Homeowner Trefan Archibald hired an individual, Gina Dobson, to refinish his hardwood floors. Dobson worked as a longshoreman full-time but did some construction work on the side. Archibald selected her for the job based on a referral and her reputation of completing similar construction projects. Upon completion of the floors, Archibald was dissatisfied with the results and refused to pay the agreed-upon price. Dobson sued for breach of contract and, as part of the suit, claimed she was not a contractor and did not need to be registered. The issue this case presented for the Washington Supreme Court’s review was: (1) whether such an individual was a “contractor” under RCW 18.27.010(1)(a); and (2) whether nonregistration under RCW 18.27.080 was an affirmative defense that had to be timely pleaded or was otherwise waived. The Court of Appeals held that Dobson was a contractor within the meaning of the contractor registration statutes and that Archibald was not required to raise nonregistration as an affirmative defense. To this, the Supreme Court agreed, holding that Dobson was a contractor as defined by statute and that registration was a prerequisite to suit. Therefore, Dobson was precluded from bringing this lawsuit, and her breach of contract action was properly dismissed. View "Dobson v. Archibald" on Justia Law
Tadych v. Noble Ridge Constr., Inc.
Gregory and Sue Tadych filed suit after the one-year limitation period to bring a construction defect suit expired. The trial court entered summary judgment, dismissing the suit and upholding the contractual limitation. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Washington Supreme Court found the contractual limitation here was substantively unconscionable and, therefore, void and unenforceable. "The one-year limitation provision provides a substantially shorter limitations period than plaintiffs are otherwise entitled to under RCW 4.16.310 and benefits the contractor at the expense of the rights of the homeowner." Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for trial. View "Tadych v. Noble Ridge Constr., Inc." on Justia Law
Seattle Tunnel Partners v. Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) PLC
Petitioners Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), sought reversal of a Court of Appeals decision affirming the partial summary judgment rulings that an “all risk” insurance policy did not provide coverage for certain losses. At issue in WSDOT’s petition for review was whether the loss of use or functionality of the insured property constituted “physical loss” or “physical damage” that triggered coverage. STP’s petition asked whether the insurance policy excluded coverage for damage to the insured property caused by alleged design defects and whether the policy covers delay losses. This case arose out of a major construction project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. In 2011, STP contracted with WSDOT to construct a tunnel to replace the viaduct. The project started in July 2013. A tunnel boring machine (TBM) used in the project stopped working in December 2013, and did not resume until December 2015. The project was unable to continue during the two-year period while the TBM was disassembled, removed, and repaired. STP and WSDOT tendered insurance claims under the Policy. Great Lakes denied coverage, and STP and WSDOT sued the insurers, alleging wrongful denial of their claims. The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, finding that even if it interpreted “direct physical loss or damage” to include loss of use, no coverage under Section 1 is triggered because the alleged loss of use was not caused by a physical condition impacting the insured property. View "Seattle Tunnel Partners v. Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) PLC" on Justia Law
Preferred Contractors Ins. Co. v. Baker & Son Constr., Inc.
The United States Federal District Court for the Western District of Washington certified a question of law to the Washington Supreme Court. Cox Construction was the general contractor of a remodeling project. Cox hired Baker & Son Construction, Inc. as a subcontractor. A Baker employee allegedly caused a two-by-four to fall from a railing and strike Ronnie Cox, owner of Cox Construction, who later died from his injury. Baker allegedly called an insurance agent to alert them of the incident. The agent told Baker that no action needed to be taken because at that time, no claim existed. A few months later, Baker received a wrongful death claim from an attorney representing Cox’s widow. Baker notified its insurer, Preferred Contractors Insurance Company (PCIC) of the claim. PCIC denied coverage, but agreed to defend Baker under a reservation of rights. The certified question to the Washington Supreme Court related to the “claims-made” nature of the policy and the timing of Baker’s tender of Ms. Cox’s claim. The Supreme Court replied to the certified question that in light of RCW 18.27, a contractor’s commercial general liability insurance policy that requires the loss to occur and be reported within the same policy year, and provides neither neither prospective nor retroactive coverage violates Washington’s public policy. View "Preferred Contractors Ins. Co. v. Baker & Son Constr., Inc." on Justia Law
Lake Hills Invs., LLC v. Rushforth Constr. Co., Inc.
Lake Hills Investments LLC sued AP Rushforth (AP) for breach of contract, alleging, among other things, that the work AP conducted on the Lake Hills Village project was defective. AP counterclaimed that Lake Hills underpaid them. At trial, an affirmative defense instruction (jury instruction 9) was given, stating that “AP has the burden to prove that Lake Hills provided the plans and specifications for an area of work at issue, that AP followed those plans and specifications, and that the [construction] defect resulted from defects in the plans or specifications. If you find from your consideration of all the evidence that this affirmative defense has been proved for a particular area, then your verdict should be for AP as to that area.” The Court of Appeals held that this instruction understated AP’s burden of proof and allowed the jury to find that if any part of the construction defect resulted from Lake Hills’ plans and specifications, then the jury could find for AP. The court concluded that the error was not harmless, reversed, and remanded for a new trial. The Washington Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding that although jury instruction 9 had the potential to mislead the jury, Lake Hills could not show it was prejudiced. The Court of Appeals' judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for the appellate court to consider issues related to the trial court's award of attorney fees. View "Lake Hills Invs., LLC v. Rushforth Constr. Co., Inc." on Justia Law
Wood v. Milionis Constr., Inc.
The issue central to this appeal centered on a “covenant judgment” arrangement: an insured defendant, facing suit by a plaintiff, settles claims without the insurer’s consent in exchange for a release from liability and assignment of potential bad faith claims against the insurer to the plaintiff. If the trial court deems the settlement reasonable, that settlement amount becomes the presumptive measure of damages in the later bad faith action brought by the plaintiff against the insurer. Insurer Cincinnati Specialty Underwriters (Cincinnati), challenged the trial court’s order approving as reasonable a $1.7 million settlement between plaintiffs, Anna and Jeffrey Wood (Woods), and Cincinnati’s insureds, Milionis Construction Inc. (MCI) and Stephen Milionis. A divided Court of Appeals held the trial court abused its discretion because the reasonableness finding credited a defense expert’s evaluation of contract damages at $1.2 million despite other evidence in the record suggesting the defense’s evaluation of damages never rose above $399,000. The Washington Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the trial court’s order. The Supreme Court found the trial court properly conducted the reasonableness hearing and evaluated the varied and conflicting evidence of contract damages. In addition, the court appropriately considered damages for plaintiffs’ extracontractual claims as well as allowable attorney fees. "In finding an abuse of discretion, the Court of Appeals majority misapprehended parts of the record and substituted its assessment of the competing damages evaluations for the trial court’s assessment." View "Wood v. Milionis Constr., Inc." on Justia Law
Conway Constr. Co. v. City of Puyallup
The city of Puyallup (City) hired Conway Construction Company to build a road. The contract allowed the City to terminate the contract early either for its convenience or on Conway’s default, but a termination for convenience would result in more costs for the City. The City ended up terminating the contract partway through construction, claiming Conway defaulted. After a lengthy bench trial, the trial court concluded that Conway was not in default when the City terminated the contract and converted the termination into one for convenience. After review, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. Further, the Court held that the City was not entitled to an offset for any defective work discovered after termination because the City did not provide Conway with the contractually required notice and opportunity to cure. View "Conway Constr. Co. v. City of Puyallup" on Justia Law
McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Ins. Co.
Todd McLaughlin was riding his bicycle on a Seattle street when the door of a parked vehicle opened right into him. McLaughlin fell, suffered injuries, and sought insurance coverage for various losses, including his medical expenses. McLaughlin’s insurance policy covered those expenses if McLaughlin was a “pedestrian” at the time of the accident. McLaughlin argued a bicyclist was a pedestrian, relying on the definition of “pedestrian” found in the Washington laws governing casualty insurance. The trial court held a bicyclist was not a pedestrian, reasoning that the plain meaning of "pedestrian" excluded bicyclists. The Court of Appeals affirmed, relying largely on its view that the Washington statute defined pedestrian for purposes of casualty insurance, excluded bicyclists. The Washington Supreme Court reversed. The Washington legislature defined “pedestrian” for purposes of casualty insurance in Washington broadly in RCW 48.22.005(11). The Supreme Court found that definition included bicyclists and applied to the insurance contract at issue here. "Even if we were to hold otherwise, at the very least, the undefined term 'pedestrian' in the insurance contract at issue must be considered ambiguous in light of the various definitions of 'pedestrian' discussed in this opinion. Being ambiguous, we must construe the insurance term favorably to the insured. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings." View "McLaughlin v. Travelers Commercial Ins. Co." on Justia Law
Borton & Sons, Inc. v. Burbank Properties, LLC
When a lessee does not timely exercise an option contained in a lease agreement, special circumstances may warrant granting them extra time to exercise the option. In this case, petitioner Burbank Properties LLC mailed its notice shortly after the deadline had passed, and the trial court awarded Burbank an equitable grace period to exercise the option on summary judgment where it was undisputed that no valuable permanent improvements were made. The Washington Supreme Court granted review to decide valuable permanent improvements to the property were a necessary prerequisite to granting the equitable grace period. The Court held that granting an equitable grace period was proper only when a lessee made valuable improvements to property that would result in an inequitable forfeiture if the lessee was not given a grace period. View "Borton & Sons, Inc. v. Burbank Properties, LLC" on Justia Law