Massachusetts Appeals Court Affirms Declaratory Judgment For Insurer in Construction Accident Case

If you are injured while at a construction site, the remedies and damages available to you may be multiple and varied. You may be able to receive workers’ compensation from your employer if you worked on site, as well as pursue damages from any independent contractor if multiple parties were responsible for the conditions that led to the injury. Many companies provide the monetary damages to the injured person by tapping their insurance benefits obtained for this exact scenario. Companies also look to the insurer to indemnify them, or step into their shoes for the purpose of defending litigation. If an insurer refuses to provide funds, the injured person must hope the company has assets, or the ability to obtain them, to satisfy any judgment in her or his favor.

The Commonwealth’s Appeals Court recently affirmed a summary judgment granted to a corporate insurer who refused to indemnify its insured for a personal injury verdict against the company and its independent contractor in a Massachusetts construction accident case. The independent contractor appealed, arguing the insurer failed to preserve the right to exclude independent contractors during the original tort action and cannot raise it now. The contractor also argued the exclusion within the policy is ambiguous and must be construed against the insurance company. It also alleged the exclusion did not apply in this circumstance because the accident was actually caused by the policyholder.

A woman injured herself at a construction site while walking on a sidewalk, tripping and falling on a cold joint built by the independent contractor. The contractor was hired to construct the sidewalk in a residential housing project. The contractor ceased paving just short of a driveway and built a “cold joint,” or space between two batches of concrete set at different times. The injured woman sued both the independent and general contractors of the project for the negligent construction of the cold joint and failure to warn of the defect. At trial, the jury found for the injured woman, finding the independent contractor to be 55% at fault and the general contractor to be 30% at fault. Since the insurer refused to indemnify the general contractor for the judgment, the independent contractor (using its insurance policy) satisfied the full amount.

The general contractor’s insurer relied on the provision that excluded coverage for bodily injury or property damage when the accident is caused by independent contractors or failure to supervise independent contractors. The appellate court disagreed with the independent contractor’s policy argument, finding the language of the policy to be clear and unambiguous. The court found the language of the exclusion covered the facts at issue, since the accident arose from the acts of the independent contractor. The court also declined to follow the argument the insurer was obligated to pay for fault apportioned to the general contractor for failing to warn of the defect in the sidewalk. The appellate court concluded that but for the independent contractor’s negligence, the need to warn of the defect wouldn’t have occurred. The court determined this satisfied the exclusion clause of the general contractor’s policy. The judgment was affirmed, and the independent contractor was not reimbursed for the general contractor’s portion of fault.

The Massachusetts personal injury attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan understand the financial burdens an accident can place on the injured person and the injured person’s family. Construction accidents in particular can cause severe, lifelong damage that is costly and prohibitive to full employment. If you’ve been injured on a construction site, our attorneys have the knowledge and experience litigating workers’ compensation and personal injury cases you need to maximize the damages you deserve. For a free, confidential consultation, call 508-822-6600.

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