Property insurance policies commonly cover water damage caused by an accidental discharge or leakage of water from an on-site plumbing system and commonly exclude water damage caused by a sewer backup. So it’s not surprising that the cause of water damage is a common battleground between policyholders and insurers. In Salil v. Ohio Security Insurance Co., 2018 WL 6272930 (N.J. App. Div. Dec. 3, 2018), insurers scored a victory when the court held that the release of water and sewage into a restaurant was subject to a $25,000 sublimit for water damage caused by a sewer backup. But claims adjusters and policyholders confronted with water damage claims in New Jersey will no doubt continue to do battle over whether the Salil decision was a decisive victory for insurers or a limited one.
In Salil, the insured landlord leased its building to a restaurant operator. After the insured’s tenant reported water and odor at the restaurant, the insured contacted a plumber, who informed the insured that a clog in the restaurant’s toilet caused Category 3 water to flow into the restaurant. The insured allegedly sustained approximately $160,000 in restoration costs and loss of business income. The plumber used a snake to clear the sewer line to remedy the issue. The restoration company confirmed the cause of the loss was a sewer back up. On this basis, the insurer determined that the cause of loss was a sewer backup. The policy excluded coverage for water damage caused by a sewer back-up, but an endorsement restored that coverage, subject to a $25,000 sub-limit for “direct physical loss or damaged caused by water… which backs up into a building or structure through sewers or drains which are directly connected to a sanitary sewer or septic system.” Pursuant to this endorsement, the insurer paid its $25,000 sublimit.