No. 08-20159, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 11771
(5th Cir. June 2, 2009)
In April 2005, thieves climbed onto the roof of the Laws’ building in Houston, Texas, tore off the exterior panels that housed each of seventeen air-condition units, and stole the copper condenser coils. Though the salvage value of the copper coils was only $2,000, the total damage to the air-conditioning units approximated $200,000.00. Underwriters denied coverage for the Laws’ claim based on commercial policy’s theft exclusion.
Underwriters sought declaratory judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, arguing it had no duty to indemnify the Laws’ claim based on the theft exclusion in the policy. The Laws counter-sued, seeking declaratory judgment that their claim was covered under the vandalism exception to the theft exclusion. The District Court granted the Laws’ motion, finding coverage under the ingress/egress exception to the theft exclusion, and awarded the Laws $177,150.00. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.
On appeal, the Laws’ argued that the damage was covered by the vandalism provision of the policy as well as the ingress/egress exception. The Court of Appeals looked to Texas law to decide the issue. Under Texas law, the Court was required to interpret the contract in a manner that gives effect to every provision and to the "intention of the parties as expressed in the instrument." Words not defined are to be understood "according to their plain and ordinary meaning. Any ambiguity is construed in favor of the insured.
The policy defined vandalism as "willful and malicious damage to, or destruction of, the described property," but specifically excluded damage caused by or resulting from theft. The policy did, however, provide an exception for the theft exclusion if the loss was caused by "the breaking in or exiting of burglars."
Focusing on the policy’s language defining vandalism, "willful and malicious" (emphasis added), the Court concluded that the interpretation of the provisions turned on the purpose for which the damage was done. The Court then reasoned that vandalism was damage done for no purpose other than to destroy property. Thus, incidental damage done in furtherance of a thievery was not vandalism. Because the damage to the air-conditioning units was done to steal the copper coils, it was not done solely to damage the property, and was not covered under the vandalism provision.
The Court then turned to the policy’s "breaking in or exiting" exception to the theft exclusion. Again, the Court found no ambiguity and interpreted the policy’s language according to its plain meaning. In Texas, “breaking in” is commonly understood by Texas courts as burglary. Texas Penal Code Ann. § 30.02 (2008) provides, in pertinent part, that a "burglar" is one who, without the owner’s consent,
"(1) enters a habitation, or a building (or any portion of a building) not then open to the public with intent to commit a felony, theft, or an assault; . . . (3) enters a building or habitation and commits or attempts to commit a felony, theft, or an assault."
The Court rejected the Law’s argument that the air conditioning units’ casings were fixtures, and since fixtures were covered under the policy, the damage to the casings was covered. The Court concluded that the plain meaning of the policy’s "breaking in or exiting" language was intended to cover damage by burglars gaining entry into the interior of the building. Because the damage did not occur while the thieves entered or exited the building itself, the thieves were not burglars. Thus, unfortunately for the Laws, the Court concluded that the parties did not intend to extend the policy’s "breaking in or exiting" exception "to include damage caused by rooftop thieves to freestanding air-conditioning units." Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s judgment and held that the air-conditioning unit damage was not covered under the policy.
You can read the full opinion by clicking here.