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Desvarieux v. Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 26, 2018




         Plaintiffs Jocelyn Desvarieux and Frantz Jean claim that Defendant Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance Company breached their home insurance policy (“the Policy”) by denying coverage for damage caused after the front wall of Plaintiffs' home collapsed. See Am. Compl. (doc. 5). Allstate seeks summary judgment, asserting it properly denied coverage because the collapse was not covered by the Policy. See S.J. Mot. (doc. 19). Because there are genuine issues of material fact as to whether the Policy covered the collapse, I deny Allstate's motion.

         I. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute of material facts exists when “factual issues . . . may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). I must view the facts and draw inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Burton v. Teleflex Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 425 (3d Cir. 2013). I also “may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of evidence.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

         Under Pennsylvania law, which applies here, the interpretation of an insurance policy generally involves a question of law. See S.J. Mot., Ex. B, Policy at 5 (Pennsylvania law applies to Policy); Am. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Murray, 658 F.3d 311, 320 (3d Cir. 2011); Gardner v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 544 F.3d 553, 558 (3d Cir. 2008). I must determine the parties' intent as manifested by the terms of the Policy. Murray, 658 F.3d at 320. I shall read the Policy as a whole and attempt to give effect to all of its provisions. Id. When the language is clear and unambiguous, I must give effect to the plain meaning of the terms. Id.; Gardner, 544 F.3d at 558. If the language is ambiguous, the parties' intent must be determined by the finder of fact and other evidence is admissible to determine that intent. See Windows v. Erie Ins. Co., 161 A.3d 953, 957-58 (Pa. Super. 2017). Language is ambiguous if “it is reasonably susceptible of different constructions and capable of being understood in more than one sense.” Gardner, 544 F.3d at 558. Language is not ambiguous merely because the parties do not agree on the proper construction or if one of the interpretations is unreasonable. See Windows, 161 A.3d at 957.

         II. Facts in Light Most Favorable to Plaintiffs

         On the morning of May 3, 2013, Desvarieux was sitting in the kitchen of her two-story Philadelphia row home (“Home”) when she heard a cracking noise followed by a boom in the front room. See Resp. (doc. 20), Ex. A, 11/10/2017 Devarieux Dep. at 6, 16-17, 21, 25-26. She walked toward the noise, heard a second boom, and was covered with dust. See id. at 27. When Desvarieux opened her eyes, she saw her Home's front wall had collapsed. See id.

         Desvarieux notified Allstate of the collapse and submitted a claim pursuant to the Policy. See id. at 27-28; S.J. Mot. at ¶ 17, Resp. at ¶ 17. Allstate hired a structural engineer, David Daniels, P.E., to determine the cause of the collapse. S.J. Mot. at ¶ 18, Resp. at ¶ 18. On May 24, 2016, Daniels issued a report, in which he concluded “with a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the stone front wall failure in the [Home] was sudden and accidental.” Mot., Ex. C, 5/24/2016 Daniels Report at 5; see also S.J. Mot. at ¶ 22, Resp. at ¶ 22. He also found that “[t]he evidence indicates it was due to long term deterioration.” 5/24/2016 Daniels Report at 5. Based on this determination and the Policy's provisions regarding collapses, Allstate denied coverage. See S.J. Mot., Ex. D, 6/1/2016 Allstate Letter; see also S.J. Mot. at ¶ 27, Resp. at ¶ 27.

         Desvarieux subsequently hired her own engineer, Charles N. Timbie, P.E., who provided a report about the cause of the collapse in December 2016. See S.J. Mot., Ex. G, 12/2/2016 Timbie Report; S.J. Mot. at ¶ 53; Resp. at ¶ 53. Timbie found: “There was no triggering event causing the wall to collapse. The damage has been developing since the building was constructed. The front wall was improperly constructed in that the mortar did not have adequate strength and the wall was not properly toothed into the side walls and party wall or tied into the floor systems.” 12/2/2016 Timbie Report at 2.

         In June 2017, Timbie issued a second report after investigating a wet soil condition that was discovered during the reconstruction of the Home's front wall. See S.J. Mot, Ex. H, 6/21/2017 Timbie Report at 2. He explained: “[It] was discovered that the soil pipe from the toilet [in the basement bathroom] to the main in the basement floor had significantly ruptured allowing the waste and storm water to flow into the soil along the front wall. Cycles of saturation and draining of the soil caused building subsidence. Removal of the paneling in the basement revealed settlement of a front portion of the party wall at the toilet room.” Id. Timbie continued to conclude that the collapse was the result of improper construction, but also found that “[t]he ruptured sewer pipe was a significant contributing factor in the settlement of the wall and the wall collapse.” Id.

         Allstate also arranged for Daniels to reinspect the Home to determine whether the broken sewer pipe had contributed to the collapse. See S.J. Mot. at ¶¶ 28-31, Resp. at ¶¶ 28-31. In July 2017, Daniels found that although photographs appeared to show a crack in a cast iron pipe found under the basement floor, the crack was small and would only allow a small amount of liquid to exit the pipe when the basement bathroom was used. See S.J. Mot., Ex. F, 7/6/2017 Daniels Report at 3; see also S.J. Mot. at ¶¶ 42-46, Resp. at ¶¶ 42-46. Daniels concluded that “the additional inspection of the property and the review of the numerous supplied photographs did not provide any evidence which would change [his] initial conclusion of the cause of the front wall collapse.” See 7/6/21017 Daniels Report at 3. As a result, Allstate continued to deny coverage. See S.J. Mot. at ¶ 49, Resp. at ¶ 49.

         Desvarieux sued Allstate for breach of contract and, during discovery, Allstate deposed Timbie. See S.J. Mot. at ¶¶ 50, 52, Resp. ¶¶ 50, 52. Timbie testified that he agreed with Daniels's findings that the collapse was the result of long-term deterioration. See S.J. Mot., Ex. I, 12/15/2017 Timbie Dep. at 29. However, he also said that the deteriorated condition of the Home was “aggravated by [the] broken pipe that was discovered during construction.” Id. Timbie explained water had been released through the cracked pipe over a period of years and caused the front wall to settle. Id. at 36-38. When asked if it was fair to say that “the predominant cause of the [collapse was] long-term deterioration and defective, original construction methods, ” Timbie testified: “Yeah, I can't give you a percentage like 51 percent, 49 percent or anything like that, but I would say that the predominant cause was defective construction and deterioration of the wall.” Id. at 40.

         III. The Policy

         Section I of the Policy provides four types of property coverage: (1) Coverage A - Dwelling Protection, which generally includes coverage for the Home and attached structures; (2) Coverage B - Other Structures Protection, which generally includes coverage for separate structures identified in the Policy Declaration page; (3) Coverage C - Personal Property Protection, which generally includes personal property owned or used by the insured person; and (4) “Additional Protection, ” which sets forth 13 other specific types of losses or expenses covered by the Policy. Policy at 1, 6-13.

         The Additional Protection section states that the Policy covers ...

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