May 16, 2017
Many construction contracts contain provisions requiring one or more parties to purchase insurance to cover certain activities or property related to the project. These provisions put an affirmative duty on a party to go out and obtain insurance to protect themselves, the other party in the contract or for against third party claims. Given the potential for expensive property damage claims or even personal injury, it makes sense for the parties to consider insurance provisions. This can be a great way of protecting against the risks of loss and litigation. If there is damage or loss and it is covered by a policy, this “Plan B” works. But what if in the event of loss the party that agreed in the contract to purchase insurance failed to do so? Is there a “Plan C?” Can they sue for breach of agreement to purchase insurance? In Virginia, the courts often deem the party who failed to fulfill their obligations to purchase insurance responsible for the loss. This seems obvious, but in cases where the opponent also breached the contract, it may not be clear how to sort out the liabilities. Whether an owner, contractor or subcontractor is what lawyers and judges call a “constructive insurer” by failure to buy insurance turns on the specific language in the agreement.
The leading Supreme Court of Virginia case on this is the 1983 decision, Walker v. Vanderpool. Roland and Elizabeth Walker owned a home in Virginia, southwest of Richmond. In 1977, they retained Vanderpool Heating & Air Conditioning Service for purchase and installation of an oil-burning furnace for $2,305. The contract said, “All work to be completed in a workmanlike manner according to standard practices.” The terms also required the Walkers to acquire and maintain fire insurance on the house. After completion, the furnace caught fire and the house burned. The Walkers had not purchased fire insurance. The Walkers alleged that their home burned because Vanderpool negligently connected the new oil furnace to a “non-existent chimney” and then turned it on. The Walkers sued Vanderpool for $45,000.00 in damages.
Vanderpool argued that if a person enters into an agreement to obtain insurance and neglects to fulfil this obligation, that person becomes the insurer and is potentially liable as such to the other party to the contract. The Walkers responded that the insurance provisions do not properly work to protect Vanderpool from liability for their own negligence.
The Supreme Court of Virginia took a “freedom of contract” approach on this case, observing that the Walkers were free to reject the Vanderpool contract unless the insurance provision was removed or modified. The Court agreed with Vanderpool that by their failure to procure the insurance, the Walkers became self-insured on this risk, and could not come after Vanderpool.
It’s easy to see how these parties looked at the contract and saw in it what they wanted. Vanderpool liked the insurance provisions, and the Walkers liked the scope and standard of workmanship provisions. In general, courts will try to harmonize different provisions in a contract so that no sections are effectively removed or rewritten in the judge’s decision.
Owners and contractors often do not focus on the insurance provisions in a contract until after something unfortunate happens. It pays to understand any contract before signing it.
Sometimes a party who fails to purchase required insurance for a project has no means to pay on a claim. A contractor may have no assets except a few pieces of equipment. An owner may have spent all of their extra cash on the project. It is important to obtain certificates of insurance to confirm that there is coverage in place.
These insurance provisions are found in a variety of other real estate related agreements, such as lease agreements, condominium or HOA covenants or mortgage documents. Newer HOA and condominium covenants seek to shift risks off the board and onto individual owners in sections dealing with liability, indemnification and insurance. Sometimes state statutes will impose insurance requirements. For example, in the District of Columbia, the Condominium Act requires owners and the association to purchase insurance. To understand insurance obligations for an owner in a HOA or condominium, it is necessary to also check what statutes, if any may apply should a dispute arise. Owners and contractors usually need the assistance of a qualified attorney to answer questions raised by mumbo jumbo in real estate and construction documents. Individual persons can often protect themselves by purchasing insurance. Being fully insured can save property owners from potential costs, including repairs and related attorney’s fees.
May 29, 2014
On May 20th I attended the 32nd Annual Real Estate Practice Seminar sponsored by the Virginia Law Foundation. Attorney Jim Cox gave a presentation entitled, Affecting Real Estate at Death: the Virginia Real Property Transfer on Death Act. Jim Cox presented an overview of this new estate planning tool that went into effect July 1, 2013.
Use of Transfer on Death (“TOD”) beneficiary designations for depository and retirement accounts is widespread. This 2013 Act allows owners of real estate to make TOD designations by recording a Revocable Transfer on Death Deed in the public land records.
The introduction of TOD Deeds is of interest to anyone involved in estate planning or real estate settlements. The following are 8 key aspects of this development in Virginia law:
- Not Really a “Deed.” A normal deed conveys an interest in real property to the grantee. A TOD Deed is a will substitute that becomes effective only if properly recorded and not revoked prior to death. The Act’s description of this instrument as a “deed” will likely be a source of confusion.
- Formal Requirements. A TOD Deed must meet the formal requirements of the statute in order to effect the intent of the owner. It must contain granting language (a.k.a. words of conveyance) appropriate for a TOD Deed. It is not effective unless recorded in land records prior to the death of the transferor. The statute contains an optional TOD Deed form. Due to the formal requirements, I cannot image advising someone to do one of these without a qualified attorney.
- Beneficiary Does Not Need to be Notified. Although a TOD Deed becomes public when filed, the transferor does not need to notify the recipient. The beneficiary may not learn about the designation until after the transferor’s death. At some point, the local government will change the addressee on the property tax bills.
- Freely Revocable. The transferor can revoke the TOD designation at any time prior to death. In fact, a TOD Deed cannot be made irrevocable. A revocation instrument must be recorded in land records.
- Unintended Title Problems. The Act takes pains to avoid creating title defects on the transferor’s title prior to death.
- Can be Disclaimed. The beneficiary can disclaim the transfer after the death of the transferor.
- Subject to Liens. Recording a TOD Deed does not trigger a due-on-sale clause in a mortgage. At the date of death, the beneficiary’s interest is subject to any enforceable liens on the property.
- Creditor Claims & Administration Costs. The beneficiary’s interest in the property is subject to any general claims of the transferor’s creditors or the expenses of the estate administration. Such claims may attach up to one year after the date of the transferor’s death. For this reason, the TOD beneficiary’s interest in the property or the proceeds of its sale will be uncertain until that 12 month period expires. However, taxing authorities, insurance companies, HOA’s and banks will expect payment prior to the end of those 12 months.
Each family has unique estate planning needs. The Va. Real Property TOD Act is a new gadget in the toolbox for crafting a plan that addresses individual desires and circumstances. Combining TOD Deeds with other estate planning tools such as wills and trusts requires careful integration to avoid unintended consequences. Estate planning and real estate practitioners will overcome any initial reluctance to use of TOD Deeds as they become subject to the test of time.
If you learn that you are the beneficiary of a TOD deed and are uncertain as to your rights and responsibilities with respect to the property, contact an experienced real estate attorney.
January 31, 2014
NBC News reported Wednesday that home insurance claims for damage resulting from frozen pipes are so high that insurers are hiring temporary adjusters to handle increased claims:
“We anticipate a large spike in frozen pipe claims,” said Peter Foley, the [American Insurance Association’s] vice president for claims. “In Washington, D.C., some of my colleagues have already had them in their own homes.”
What State Farm describes as a “catastrophe” comes while many families & communities struggle to make ends meet under the current economic conditions. These insurance claims can run as high as $15,000 in residential dwellings. A commercial property or multi-family housing can sustain even greater damages.
In many communities in Virginia, homes and commercial buildings remain vacant this winter because the local real estate market has not yet come back or the properties are only used seasonally. Frozen pipe damage is compounded in vacant buildings because:
- Few occupants take precautions to protect pipes from bursting before they move out of a building.
- Usually no one checks up on an unoccupied building when it is extremely cold. If there is a landlord, property manager, bank or other institutional investor, they aren’t likely to give a vacant building individual attention.
- No one is there to observe the damage as it develops, so greater drywall, carpet, mold, and other damage can occur.
These types of problems tend to result in litigation between the owners, banks, neighbors and insurance companies. This blog post explores three recent cases:
Hiring a Property Manager: Panda East Restaurant, Massachusetts
From 1987-2006, Issac Chow owned and operated the Panda East restaurant in Northampton, MA. Mr. Chow also purchased a house in Hadley, MA, for his employees to live in. While the restaurant was in business, Richard Lau managed both the restaurant and the house. When Panda East went out of business, all of its employees moved out of the house. Chow instructed Lau to keep the heat on in the Hadley house during the winter of 2006-07. Unfortunately, that winter the house suffered damage from burst frozen pipes. An inspector determined that the heat had been turned off. The flooding ruined carpets, furniture and drywall throughout the house.
Mr. Chow brought suit against Merrimack Mutual Fire Insurance Company in Massachusetts. On appeal, the Court could not determine what Chow did, if anything, to engage Lau as property manager for the house after the restaurant closed down. Since the employment relationship between Chow and Lau was unclear, the Court could not determine who was negligent. Chow v. Merrimack Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 83 Mass. App. Ct. 622 (2013). The Panda East case shows that:
- Cold winters are a time bomb to an unoccupied house (or other building) not winterized to prevent frozen pipes.
- Owners must consider retaining a manager or house-sitter for properties that “go dark.”
- Written property management agreements work better than verbal directions. A contract document can clearly define the scope of the manager’s responsibility.
Homeowner’s Negligence: Potomac, Maryland
In addition to suing the insurance company, some lawyers try to sue public utilities for damages arising from frozen pipes in an abandoned home. Izatullo Khosmukhamedov and Zoulfia Issaeva brought a lawsuit against Potomac Electric Power Co. (PEPCO) for leaving the electricity on in their unoccupied house, which later suffered damage from burst frozen pipes.
These Plaintiffs primarily lived in Moscow, Russia. This couple owned a second home in Potomac, Maryland. Apparently, they grew tired of paying the heating and electric bills. After a stay in October 2008, they sought to turn all of these services off. In the following winter, the pipes in the house froze, burst and caused extensive damage. They made no effort to winterize, heat the property, turn off the water main or drain the pipes. In their lawsuit, they argued that PEPCO failed to completely turn-off the electricity, thus allowing the well water pump to push water into the house, intensifying the damage.
The Federal judge in Maryland dismissed their claims on summary judgment before trial, observing that:
It is well-settled, both in Maryland and other jurisdictions, that a property owner can reasonably foresee the danger that water pipes may freeze in the winter and breaches the duty of ordinary care by failing to adequately heat and/or drain them.
Koshmukhamedov v. PEPCO, No. 8:11-cv-00449-AW (D. Md. Feb. 19, 2013)
Judge Williams dismissed Plaintiffs’ claim against PEPCO. This case illustrates skepticism shown to Plaintiffs in frozen pipe cases where they failed to take reasonable precautions.
Most residential property insurance policies specifically exclude coverage if the property goes unoccupied. In a related case, this couple also sued their property insurer, State Farm. The same judge decided that the home was “unoccupied” and thus excluded from coverage by the terms of the policy. Koshmukhamedov v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 946 F. Supp. 2d 443 (D. Md. May 28. 2013)
Insurance Claims in Foreclosure: Holiday Inn Express, Burnet, Texas
On our road trip, dear reader, we first warmed ourselves up with an a la carte dim sum brunch in Massachusetts. For lunch, we had a backfin crabcake in Maryland. The last stop on our trip takes us to a beef brisket dinner in central Texas. Our final case study shows how cashflow and property damage can compound problems for a business owner facing foreclosure. This double whammy presents special challenges to the bank and property insurer as well.
In late 2009, a Holiday Inn Express franchisee stopped making its mortgage payments to the bank that had lent the money for the purchase of the hotel building in Burnet, Texas. On January 9, 2010, the hotel suffered extensive damage from frozen pipes. On January 28, 2010, the bank sent the owner a foreclosure notice. A few days later, the property insurer sent the owner and bank a payment check. This was not cashed due to the disputes between the bank and owner. The owner and the insurance company could not agree on a proper estimate for the damage from the frozen pipes.
On March 2, 2010, the bank foreclosed on the property and purchased it at the sale. The hotelier then sued the bank, insurance company and the subsequent purchaser. The former owner sued the insurance company for not fully compensating for the damage he alleged to be $133,681.62. The Court of Appeals of Texas focused on relevant language in the insurance company’s contract with the owner and the Bank’s loan documents for the hotel. Lenders typically require borrowers to maintain adequate insurance on the property. That way, the loan is adequately secured in the event that damage and default occur around the same time. Usually, a lender’s rights to the security under the loan documents are limited to the principal, interest and other indebtedness owed. A claim for insurance proceeds comes into play to the extent the foreclosure sale price does not satisfy the sums of money owed to the bank.
In Virginia, the foreclosure trustee must file an accounting with the commissioner of accounts that reconciles the indebtedness, sale price and other credits and debits that the bank is entitled to under the loan documents and law. Each state has its own foreclosure procedures.
The Texas Court of Appeals explained that the Bank was only entitled to any portion of the insurance claim proceeds necessary to satisfy any deficiency after the foreclosure. It appears that the Court sought to avoid a windfall to any party seeking to muscle the proceeds during the chaotic foreclosure period. Peacock Hospitality, Inc. d/b/a Holiday Inn Express-Burnet, 419 S.W.3d 649 (Ct. App. Tex. Nov. 27, 2013)
Neither foreclosures nor frozen pipe damage occur in a vacuum. An exceptionally focused owner might take measures to prevent catastrophic damage to a distressed property in an attempt to fetch the highest possible foreclosure sale price. When a property is in financial distress, its owners and lenders must also attend to any signficant insurance claims that may become an element of the foreclosure accounting.
These three cases illustrate why, as attorney Jim Autry says, “An abandoned building is more of a liability than an asset.” Frozen pipes present a serious threat to the value and habitability of unoccupied homes and commercial buildings. Except for a few “hot” areas, much of Virginia (and the country at large) has a significant inventory of uninhabited homes and commercial properties. This winter’s cold spells present unique challenges to property managers, water utilities, banks, owners and insurance companies. When a family or business must negotiate with more than one of these parties to resolve legal issues surrounding a distressed property, an experienced attorney can provide critical counseling and representation.