Tennessee Appeals Court Reverses Decision and Requires Insurance Coverage for Damages

Many Tennessee premises liability claims revolve around determining who is responsible for an accident and who should pay. In some instances, however, liability is not contested. Instead, the parties must fight with insurers about the extent of the related damage and what must be covered.

In this recent insurance appeal, Jefferson County Schools sued Travelers Indemnity Company to provide full coverage of all of the damages related to a recent building collapse. One of the school district’s high school buildings collapsed during a rainstorm. After reviewing the damage, the Tennessee State Fire Marshal’s Office directed the School District to repair the collapsed building and to ensure that all repairs were taken to prevent a future collapse.

Travelers did not contest its obligation to pay for the repairs on the collapsed portion of the building, nor did it disagree with its obligation to pay for some of the repairs made to the existing uncollapsed building in order to prevent future collapses. Indeed, the company paid almost $900,000 in repairs to the school district. However, Travelers took issue with the final recommendation from the engineer whom the school district hired, which advised the school district to provide additional reinforcement to the walls at the school. Travelers argued that this recommendation was discretionary and that they did not need to pay for it.  The school district argued that under the terms of the policy, Travelers was required to pay for all of the work necessary to comply with the ordinances of the state, and this was an ordinance, since it came directly from the fire marshal.

At trial, both sides provided competing testimony from their experts. The school district’s expert testified at length as to why such reinforcement was necessary in order to prevent a future collapse, as the fire marshal had directed. The defendant’s expert testified that the building as it stood was completely in compliance with all applicable state building codes, and any additional reinforcement of the walls, although not a bad idea, was a discretionary repair.

At the end of the trial, the judge found for the defendants. He determined first that the defendant’s expert was more credible, and, accordingly, he believed that the outstanding repairs were discretionary rather than required. Second, he held that since they were discretionary, the plaintiffs had failed to show that the failure to make such repairs violated any existing ordinance or code. The school district appealed.

On appeal, the school district argued that the fire marshal’s directive to make all repairs necessary to prevent future repairs was an ordinance that had to be obeyed, while Travelers argued that it was not. The appeals court turned to the stipulations of the parties, which agreed that the fire marshal’s office was empowered to enforce building codes for Tennessee. Based on this stipulation, the appeals court held that the fire marshal’s directive was clearly an ordinance that had to be obeyed.

Moreover, while the directive to sufficiently repair the school building left some things up to discretion, the appeals court held that the school district was bound to abide by any recommendations made by the engineer whom they hired if those recommendations were made in furtherance of the fire marshal’s directive and that, while the defendants and their experts might believe those recommendations were discretionary, that was beside the point. The appeals court found that the school district had to comply, and if reinforcements were necessary in order for it to do so, reinforcements were required to comply with the ordinance and were required under Travelers’ insurance policy. On this basis, it reversed the lower court and remanded for further proceedings.

This case shows how tricky premises liability and other personal injury claims can be when dealing with an insurer and the strict and narrow interpretations of an insurance policy. Tennessee premises liability attorney Eric Beasley has extensive experience dealing with insurers and will fight for you to get the maximum coverage allowed under your policy.  For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Supreme Court Finds No Duty for Home Inspector After Deck Failure, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, November 27, 2017.

Tennessee Court of Appeals Upholds Finding That Dog Owner Is Not Liable for Bite, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 20, 2017.

Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable for an Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016.