St. Mary & St. John Coptic Orthodox Church v. SBS Insurance Services, Inc.

Water splashing

Because Residence Was Vacant For 60 Consecutive Days, Vacancy Exclusion in Property Policy Applied to Bar Coverage of Water Damage Claim Under Policy

January 18, 2021
Michael Velladao - Lewis Brisbois

In St. Mary & St. John Coptic Orthodox Church v. SBS Insurance Services, Inc., ----Cal.App.5th--- (November 23, 2020), the California First District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's entry of judgment in favor of SBC Insurance Services ("SBC") regarding a claim for water damage sustained by a residence owned by St. Mary & John Coptic Church ("St. Mary") under property coverage afforded by a policy issued by Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company ("Philadelphia"). The policy was procured by SBC on behalf of St. Mary. Philadelphia denied coverage of the claim based on the vacancy exclusion in its policy, but entered into a settlement and loan receipt agreement, whereby St. Mary gave Philadelphia the right to control litigation in St. Mary’s name against SBC or third parties who might be liable for the loss in exchange for a loan of money to repair and remediate the damage sustained by the residence. The loan was to be repaid out of any recovery made against SBC or third parties. After a bench trial, the trial court found in favor of SBC and held that the vacancy exclusion was ambiguous. Essentially, the exclusion did not apply to the time period prior to the time St. Mary purchased the residence, such that the 60-day vacancy requirement could not be satisfied. The trial court reasoned that since St. Mary did not have an insurable interest in the property before it purchased the property, the 60-day requirement did not include the period before such residence was purchased and St. Mary held an insurable interest.

The parties’ dispute arose of out of the Pope of the Coptic Church requesting St. Mary to purchase a home to be used as his papal residence in the Western United States. St. Mary also intended to use the home as a residence for visiting bishops. The home was purchased on May 28, 2015. As part of the purchase, SBC placed the home under St. Mary’s commercial policy, rather than purchasing a separate homeowner’s policy for the residence. Subsequently, the home sustained water damage due to a broken pipe. The water damage was discovered on July 24, 2015, 57 days after the inception of the Philadelphia policy and the loss. St. Mary tendered the property loss to Philadelphia, which denied coverage of the claim based on the reasoning that the home had been vacant for 60 consecutive days prior to the loss. Subsequently, St. Mary filed suit against SBC after securing the loan receipt agreement with Philadelphia based on the argument that the vacancy exclusion barred coverage of the claim and SBC breached its duty of care by not securing the proper coverage of the home. The trial court entered judgment in favor of SBC finding that the vacancy exclusion did not apply to bar coverage of the loss, such that SBC did not breach its duty of care owed to St. Mary as its broker.

Mr. Velladao may be contacted at Michael.Velladao@lewisbrisbois.com



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