Most professional liability polices include some form of a “related claims” provision that generally provides where two or more claims or wrongful acts are causally or logically related, they will be deemed to constitute a single claim. Importantly, these provisions typically provide that those “claims” are then deemed to have been “first made” at the time the first claim or act was committed for purposes of the policy’s claims-made and reporting requirements. Understandably, these provisions provide insurers and insureds with some clarity over the number and timing of claims that could involve multiple errors or omissions, and potentially aggregate all related claims or acts into a single policy period. While reasonable in principle, application of such provisions, especially involving large scale design and construction projects, is not always so easy.
Nova Southeastern University, Inc. v. Continental Cas. Co., 18-cv-61842 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 27, 2019), involved such an insurance coverage dispute with a design project gone wrong. DeRose Design Consultants, Inc. (“DeRose”) was hired as a structural engineer to design “ice tanks” to store and chill water for an energy efficient air conditioning facility constructed on the campus of Nova Southeastern University (“NSU”). An early water test on one of the tanks determined the walls of the ice tank deflected, leaked, and cracked when the tank was filled with water. DeRose later discovered that the problems with the ice tank were caused by a structural design error.
The first errors were discovered in early 2009, and reported under DeRose’s professional liability policy with Evanston. DeRose then created a remedial design to repair the tanks, which involved strengthening repairs. Additional leaking and an early indication of corrosion involving the Remedial Design arose as early as October 25, 2009. Several field investigation reports were prepared in 2011 and 2012 confirming these issues with the Remedial Design. A third report in February 2012, however, identified a new error involving the concrete slab under the ice tanks also designed by DeRose. The third report concluded that the concreate slab was overstressed and could not handle the loads of the ice tanks. The report also concluded, however, that the design defects in the concrete slab were “unrelated” to the original design defect of the ice tank walls or Remedial Design.