December 21, 2007

New Law for Texas Contractors and Their Attorneys

A decision by the Texas Supreme Court either delighted or horrified Texas attorneys, depending on whether they represented consumers of construction services, construction companies or insurance companies. In Lamar Homes, Inc. v. Mid-Continent Casualty Company, an opinion delivered on August 31, 2007 and which became final in December 2007, the Texas Supreme Court held that unintended construction defects constitute property damage under a commercial general liability policy ("CGL" policy), triggering a duty by the insurer to defend the home builder and to pay damages on behalf of the builder when a home owner sued the builder for construction defects.

919054_home_construction_real_estate_development_4.jpg This is a surprising decision in some ways because, in general, CGL policies in Texas cover claims for bodily injury, property damage, personal injury, and advertising injury (damage from slander or false advertising). A damage claim because something has been built defectively is usually not covered by a CGL policy. The CGL policy is intended to cover tort claims. A claim that something was built defectively is a breach of contract claim, As the dissent in this case so ably points out, this decision turns the construction industry and the CGL insurance industry on its head.

Attorneys representing home owners may smile at this decision, and think they have been handed another source from which to collect damages when a builder's construction (or the work of the builder's subcontractors) turns out to be defective. However, the real loser because of this decision may be the very person that this decision appeared to benefit: the consumer! If CGL insurers are now obligated to cover every real or imagined, major or minor, defect in new construction, then the premiums for those policies will most certainly rise. Those increased premiums paid by the contractor will be passed on to the consumer in both residential and commercial construction. Rents will ultimately increase. What this decision really does is spread the cost of construction defects among all of us. In addition, this decision really shields the bad builders in the short run: they can pass these costs on to their CGL carrier, rather than being liable themselves for shoddy work.

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