Pictures can say more than a thousand words. In a coverage decision for the policyholder, these images can speak hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The basic facts of the case were recited early by the court:1
Mrs. Crigger owned 2,291 copies of a paperback titled THE EARLY DAYS: AN INSIDE STORY OF NASHVILLES COUNTRY MUSIC BIZ; 4,500 posters by The Wendt Brothers; and 200 copies of Pedal Steel.us magazine. All of these items were new and stored in the carport attached to her residence at 745 Drummond Court, Nashville, Tennessee. Both the home and the carport were insured by State Farm.
The items were stored in a homemade container built by Ms. Crigger and Terry Wendt, who lived at the residence, but was not a named insured on the State Farm policy. Two sides of the container consisted of the outer rear walls of the main residence, while the other two sides were made of wooden privacy screens. Plastic sheeting covered the top of the container to provide protection from the elements.
The court then placed before and after pictures in the opinion:
These pictures obviously make one think…“someone will have coverage for the weight of snow causing a collapse.” That’s exactly what the court found, and that State Farm was wrong in arguing that moisture damage was not covered:
To the extent that Crigger alleges that “the weight of the falling ice and snow caused the roof of the carport to collapse, and the ice and snow then fell on the personal property inside a dry storage shed and melted,” she presents a reasonable claim for coverage under the risk “the weight of the falling ice and snow”. Similarly, State Farm presents a reasonable argument that there is no coverage because the weight of the falling ice and snow did not cause the injury, and water is not a covered peril. And it is precisely because reasonable arguments can be made on both sides that State Farm is not entitled to summary judgment.
“Tennessee law is clear that questions regarding the scope of insurance coverage constitute legal questions involving the interpretation of contract language.” Garrison v. Bickford, 377 SW3d 659, 663 (Tenn. 2012). Tennessee law is also clear that “insurance contracts are strictly construed in favor of the insured, and if the disputed provision is susceptible of more than one reasonable meaning, the meaning favorable to the insured controls.”
The plausibility or reasonableness of the competing arguments aside, there are at least two other reasons why the court finds coverage exists under the policy. First, ‘the [policy] the disputed language should be examined within the context of the entire agreement. Phillips474 SW3d at 665. That examination suggests that if water damage and moisture were not part of the peril covered by the “weight of ice, snow, or sleet,” the policy would have made that clear—just as it made clear what was covered and not covered in case of storm or hail:
2. Windstorm or hail. This peril does not include loss of property contained in a structure caused by rain, snow, sleet, sand or dust. This limitation does not apply when the direct force of wind or hail damages the structure and causes an opening in a roof or wall and the rain, snow, sleet, snow, sand or dust enters through this opening.
Second, the policy provides coverage for “accidental direct physical loss.” . . caused by [a] danger.’ ‘Tennessee recognizes the doctrine of concurrent cause, which provides that there is insurance coverage in a situation where a non-excluded cause is a substantial factor in causing the injury or damage, even though an excluded cause may have contributed in some way to the ultimate result and , standing alone, would have invoked the exclusion in the policy.’…Although State Farm argues that the concurrent causation doctrine ‘is inapplicable here’ because there was no ‘applicable peril causing the loss,’ there is no dispute that the weight of snow and ice (a covered peril) caused the carport roof to collapse and the resulting melting of snow and ice was a “substantial factor” in the damage to Crigger’s personal property.
State Farm has certainly paid thousands of claims where personal property has been damaged by snow and ice melting after a collapse. I guess the company was trying to find a new argument not to pay for that kind of loss. The case is set for trial early next year and we will report on further developments if the case is not resolved.
When I was young and racing in races and working the rest of the time, I went 24 hours. I was on the verge of collapsing. But you need to slow down a bit.
1 Crigger v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co.No. 3:21-cv-00508 (MD Tenn. Sept. 6, 2022).