Oxford Aviation, Inc. v. Global Aero, Inc.: The First Circuit’s Broad Interpretation of an Insurer’s Duty to Defend

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The First Circuit has endorsed key principles that favor policyholders in insurance coverage disputes — principles that can frequently be used to help insureds in construction cases. So, this new case is worth a look. In Oxford Aviation, Inc. v. Global Aero., Inc., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 10101 (1st Cir. 2012), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated the district court’s decision which found that a carrier had no duty to defend claims involving alleged faulty workmanship. Relying on Maine law, the court held strong to the concept that even the remotest possibility of coverage triggers an insurer’s duty to defend.

The details, after the jump.

Airlarr hired Oxford to perform repairs and installations on its airplane. After picking up its restored plane, Airlarr sued Oxford for breach of contract, breach of express and implied warranties and various state-law claims. Airlarr alleged that, due to Oxford’s “negligence and faulty performance,” one of the plane’s side windows cracked on Airlarr’s flight home from Oxford’s Maine facility. Airlarr also listed a number of “defects and other substandard work,” including uncomfortable seats, leaking fuel injectors, a cracked turbocharger, and an improperly installed carpet. But the cracked window was central to the Court’s decision to overturn the district court’s ruling.

Oxford tendered the complaint to its CGL insurer, Global Aerospace, and requested that the insurer provide a defense. But Global disclaimed both coverage and its duty to defend Oxford in the Airlarr lawsuit. Oxford then sued Global in a Maine state court, and Global removed the case to federal district court. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Global, holding that Global had no duty to defend because Airlarr’s claims fell within the CGL policy’s exclusions. The First Circuit disagreed and held that the district court should have considered the issue of initial coverage instead of relying solely on the policy’s exclusions.

Recognizing that Maine interprets coverage terms like “accident” and “occurrence” broadly – as opposed to courts that rely on these terms to exclude coverage for faulty workmanship – the First Circuit concluded that the damage to the plane’s side window should be considered an “accident” and an “occurrence” and be covered under Coverage A of the policy. The court, therefore, did not interpret these terms narrowly to exclude coverage for faulty workmanship.

The court reiterated the basic principle that an insurer’s duty to defend is generally broader than its duty to indemnify. The court insisted that an insurer has a duty to defend even if the possibility of coverage is highly unlikely. After discussing the exclusions that Global relied on, the court concluded that, because the policy covers at least one of Airlarr’s claims, Global has a duty to defend the entire lawsuit: “Here, at least one scenario relating to the cracked window, occurring in flight and away from Oxford’s facilities, does fall within coverage and could plausibly avoid all cited exclusions.”

To determine whether any exclusion could negate the policy’s coverage of the damaged window, the court analyzed possible exclusions. The court held that exclusion (j)(4), which excludes from coverage “[p]roperty damage to … [p]ersonal property in the care, custody or control of the insured,” did not exclude the damaged window because the damage occurred after Oxford returned the plane to Airlarr. Additionally, in discussing exclusion (j)(6) (the “your-work” exclusion), which excludes a “particular part of any property that must be restored, repaired, or replaced because your work was incorrectly performed on it,” the court noted that this exclusion could conceivably apply to the damaged window. However, by its terms, the your-work exclusion does not apply to “property damage occurring away from premises you own or rent and arising out of your product or your work.” Because the damage to the window occurred in-flight and in Airlarr’s possession, the court concluded that the your-work exclusion did not exclude coverage of the cracked window.

The court quickly dismissed exclusion k (the “your-product” exclusion), which excludes “[p]roperty damage to your product arising out of it or any part of it,” since the cracked window was never alleged to be Oxford’s product.

The court also discussed exclusion l (the “products-completed operations hazard” exclusion), which excludes “[p]roperty damage to your work arising out of it or any part of it and included in the products-completed operations hazard.” The court noted, however, that the damaged window was not alleged to be, nor was there any indication that it was included in, Oxford’s work. Therefore, this exclusion also could not apply to the damaged window.

In concluding that the policy’s exclusions could not exclude coverage for the damaged window, the court held that Global had a duty to defend even though Global would likely be on the hook for little, if any, indemnification if Airlarr prevailed in the lawsuit: “If Airlarr proves its case, it seems unlikely that there will be much, if any, indemnification since most of the claimed injuries appear likely to be covered by exclusions. But the duty to defend is triggered by any realistic possibility of any damage that might be within coverage and outside the exclusions and the damaged window creates that prospect.” Notwithstanding the exclusions, therefore, the court held that Global had a duty to defend.

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