Court defines 'collapse' in Logan Co. insurance dispute

By John O'Brien | Nov 14, 2013


CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has reinstated a lawsuit over what the word “collapse” means in a homeowners insurance policy.

Freda Marie Bradley sued Farmers & Mechanics Mutual Insurance Company in Logan County Circuit Court in 2010, alleging the damage discovered under her kitchen floor constituted a collapse and that it was covered by her F&M insurance policy.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Bradley passed away. Her daughter, Patricia Chafin, became the administratrix of the estate, which was substituted as the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“(T)his Court finds that the term ‘collapse’ as used in Ms. Bradley’s insurance policy should be construed to mean something less than the complete falling in of the kitchen floor and to include substantial impairment of the structural integrity of the floor,” the per curiam opinion says.

“We further find that whether Ms. Bradley should have known that decay was causing her kitchen floor to sink is a genuine issue of material fact that must be decided by a jury.”

The decision overruled Logan Circuit Judge Roger L. Perry’s granting of summary judgment to F&M.

Bradley purchased the policy in 2002 and made a claim for damages in 2005. She said nearby blasting activities were damaging her house, but an engineer said there was no blasting damage, and her claim was denied.

In 2008, she filed a second claim over damage to her kitchen and bathroom floors. An engineer attributed the damage to rotting and decay resulting from inadequate perimeter drainage and lack of a vapor barrier.

Her claim was denied. The company cited an exclusion for water damage below the surface of the ground.

Two years later, she filed her lawsuit. She alleged her “floor collapsed to the extent that the kitchen became unsafe and unusable. The only thing holding the floor up was the linoleum floor covering.”

The policy provided coverage for a collapse caused by hidden decay. The policy did not define the term “collapse.”

Perry ruled in May 2012 that Bradley’s kitchen did not collapse.

“The fact that Ms. Bradley’s floor had been sinking over a period of six years before filing a claim goes to prove that Ms. Bradley was aware of the sinking and therefore of the decay,” Perry wrote.

The Supreme Court found the term “collapse” ambiguous in the policy. Thus, the court construed it in favor of the insured.

The court also ruled Perry erred in deciding that Bradley was aware of decay under her kitchen floor.

“(J)ust because Ms. Bradley was aware that the floor was sinking, does not mean that she knew the cause of the sinking,” the opinion says.

Bradley's estate is represented by Carte P. Goodwin of Goodwin & Goodwin in Charleston, while the insurer was represented by James A. Varner of McNeer, Highland, McMunn and Varner in Clarksburg.

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