CAST IRON PIPES RUST & LEAK
Acts of Nature are Excluded
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Marisol Rosa (“Rosa”) appealed a final summary judgment entered in favor of Safepoint Insurance Company (“Safepoint”). In Marisol Rosa v. Safepoint Insurance Company, No. 5D21-3005, Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District (November 14, 2022) the Court of Appeals interpreted an exclusion for damages caused by an act of nature.
The Insurance Policy
Safepoint insured Rosa’s dwelling pursuant to a homeowners insurance policy. The dwelling was damaged by the overflow of water from the plumbing system. The parties agree that the loss resulted from the deterioration of cast iron pipes that was caused by “rust or other corrosion.” After investigating the damage, Safepoint determined the loss was excluded from coverage under the policy’s Water Damage Exclusion Endorsement. Rosa then sued seeking to recover the costs she incurred in repairing her dwelling due to the water damage.
The issue in this appeal is whether the policy covers the subject loss, and the answer depends on the meaning of the term “act of nature” in the policy.
The introductory paragraph of the policy’s Exclusions section states that the policy does “not insure for loss caused directly or indirectly by any of the following. Such loss is excluded regardless of any other cause or event contributing concurrently or in any sequence to the loss. . . .” The definition of “Water Damage” following that introductory language was replaced by an endorsement to the policy, the Water Damage Exclusion Endorsement, which defines “Water Damage” as including: “d. Accidental or intentional discharge or overflow of water or steam from within a plumbing, heating, air conditioning or automatic fire protective sprinkler system or from within a household appliance; . . . . Caused by or resulting from human or animal, forces or any act of nature.” (emphasis added)
Thus, if the rust or other corrosion that caused this loss was an act of nature, Safepoint correctly denied coverage. But, if the rust or other corrosion was not an act of nature, the Water Damage Exclusion Endorsement did not preclude coverage.
The interpretation of an insurance policy is a question of law reviewed de novo. The guiding principle for insurance policy interpretation is that the policy must be read as a whole, affording words their plain meaning as bargained for by the parties. Florida law provides that insurance contracts are construed in accordance with the plain language of the policies as bargained for by the parties.
The insured argued that “act of nature” is synonymous with “act of God” and only occurs when a singular act or external force occurs. However, everyday interpretation of the phrase “act of nature” is not as narrow or technical as the insureds propose but rather is to be given its ordinary meaning as “something that naturally occurs.”
Read the Full Policy
The Court of Appeal found that in the context of this policy the phrase “act of nature” does not require an uncontrollable or unpreventable event. Here, the loss was caused by rust or corrosion. Corrosion, the chemical reaction between iron and moist air, is an act of nature or a naturally occurring force. Thus, the rust or corrosion occurred because of a natural act. As a result, the Water Damage Exclusion endorsement applied to this loss.
Such losses are excluded even if they were caused concurrently by a covered peril. In context, “any act of nature” is not limited to natural disasters, i.e., an act of God.
The policy at issue references “an Act of God” more than once in its Cancellation and Nonrenewal sections. Where the document has used one term in one place, and a materially different term in another, the presumption is that the different term denotes a different idea. As a general proposition, the use of different language in different contractual provisions strongly implies that a different meaning was intended. In light of the entire policy, the use of “an Act of God” and “any act of nature” separately indicates each phrase has a different meaning for the purpose of this homeowners insurance policy. Relatedly, the choice of the drafters to capitalize “an Act of God” stands in contradiction to the uncapitalized use of “any act of nature” in the exclusion.
The distinction further undermines Rosa’s argument that the terms “any act of nature” and “an Act of God” are interchangeable within the policy. Because the phrase “any act of nature” is made expressly applicable to the Water Damage Exclusion Endorsement the Court of Appeal concluded, as is required by basic insurance policy rules of interpretation, that the phrase is to be given its ordinary meaning.
In sum, the rust or other corrosion that occurred in the pipes in Rosa’s dwelling, regardless of whether it was perhaps preventable or controllable, was a naturally occurring force and thus an act of nature.
As an act of nature, the loss came within the policy exclusion for “any act of nature.” Consequently, the Court of Appeal concluded that Safepoint correctly denied coverage.
Insurance policies are always interpreted by reviewing the entire policy to make sense of the intent of the parties. Since the term “act of nature” only appeared with regard to the water damage exclusion and “Act of God” appeared elsewhere it was obvious to the court that the terms had different meanings. Rust is natural when moisture and air meets iron. It exists naturally in hillsides, abandoned autos and in iron pipes. The cause of the loss was the rust that caused the insured’s pipes to leak and damage her property. No insurance policy insures against every possible risk of loss and the cause of the loss was clearly and unambiguously excluded.
(c) 2022 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 54 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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