Insurance Coverage & Bad Faith Newsletter - Summer 2020

Pulte Home Corp. v. CBR Electric, Inc.

(Insurer Entitled to Maintain Subrogation Action Against Subcontractors for Reimbursement of Defense Costs Based on Indemnity Clauses in Contracts with Developer/General Contractor)

(August 2020) - In Pulte Home Corp. v. CBR Electric, Inc., 50 Cal.App.5th 216 (June 10, 2020), the California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s entry of judgment in favor of six subcontractors with respect to an equitable subrogation lawsuit filed by St. Paul Mercury Insurance Company (“St. Paul”). St. Paul filed the lawsuit after defending Pulte Home Corp. (“Pulte”) against two construction defect lawsuits. The lawsuit contended that St. Paul was entitled to seek recovery of defense costs incurred on behalf of Pulte based on equitable subrogation. St. Paul relied on the indemnity clauses in each of the subcontracts, and argued that the subcontractors had breached their contracts with Pulte. As such, each subcontractor was obligated to pay an equitable share of the defense of the construction defect lawsuits relating to their work on the homes at issue in such lawsuits. The trial court ruled against St. Paul and held that the subcontractors’ failure to pay defense costs did not “cause” the homeowners’ claims, such that there was no causal connection supporting a claim for equitable subrogation. In addition, the trial court found that “equitable subrogation was an all-or-nothing claim, meaning it required a shifting of the entire amount of defense costs to the subcontractors on a joint and several basis and did not allow for an apportionment of costs among the defendant subcontractors.”

In reversing the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeal reasoned that St. Paul stood in the shoes of Pulte and was limited to pursuing recovery from the subcontractors based on the same rights as afforded to Pulte under the subcontracts. The Court of Appeal noted that St. Paul was seeking reimbursement of defense costs from the subcontractors based on the theory that they were contractually liable for paying an equitable share of defense costs. The Court of Appeal also noted that St. Paul’s claim was not premised on the contention that the subcontractors’ failure to pay defense costs caused the homeowners’ claims. Rather, St. Paul’s claim was premised on the subcontractors’ breach of their defense duty owed to Pulte under the indemnity clauses in their subcontracts.

The Court of Appeal described the elements necessary to maintaining a claim for equitable subrogation as follows:

There are eight elements of an insurer’s cause of action for equitable subrogation: “[1] the insured suffered a loss for which the defendant is liable, either as the wrongdoer whose act or omission caused the loss or because the defendant is legally responsible to the insured for the loss caused by the wrongdoer; [2] the claimed loss was one for which the insurer was not primarily liable; [3] the insurer has compensated the insured in whole or in part for the same loss for which the defendant is primarily liable; [4] the insurer has paid the claim of its insured to protect its own interest and not as a volunteer; [5] the insured has an existing, assignable cause of action against the defendant which the insured could have asserted for its own benefit had it not been compensated for its loss by the insurer; [6] the insurer has suffered damages caused by the act or omission upon which the liability of the defendant depends; [7] justice requires that the loss be entirely shifted from the insurer to the defendant, whose equitable position is inferior to that of the insurer; and [8] the insurer’s damages are in a liquidated sum, generally the amount paid to the insured.” (Interstate Fire, supra 182 Cal.App.4th at pp. 33-34.)

The Court of Appeal found that St. Paul satisfied each of the elements necessary to maintaining a claim for equitable subrogation. In particular, the equities justified shifting the costs of defense from St. Paul to the subcontractors for an equitable share of such costs related to the work of the subcontractors.

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