(Note: This Guest Blog is by Corey Harris, an attorney with Merlin Law Group in the Tampa, Florida, office. This is part of a series he is writing on post-loss duties).
Since an insured has an obligation to mitigate any damages that occur, one question is who should pay for these efforts? In many instances, there will be specific policy language which states that the insured will be entitled to reimbursement for any temporary repairs or other mitigation efforts which he/she incurs as a result of a covered loss. Similarly, most policies will state whether these expenses will be added against the policy limit or are considered additional coverages. It is important to read and understand the particular language of the policy in order to make this determination, especially with a large loss where the costs to protect the property from future harm can be very expensive.
If the policy is silent as to whether the policyholder is entitled to reimbursement for these expenses, many courts have found that they are. In City of Laguna Beach v. Mead Reinsurance Corp., 226 Cal.App. 3d 822 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 1990), for instance, the Court focused on the fact that the insured’s duty to mitigate the damages is intended for the benefit of the insurer by lessening the amount that must be paid under the policy. The Court held that since the temporary repairs were intended to benefit the insurer, the policyholder was entitled to reimbursement.
In McNeilab, Inc. v. North River Ins. Co., 645 F. Supp. 525 (D. N.J. 1986), a New Jersey court came to a similar conclusion. The McNeilab Court found that where an insured took steps to minimize damages which had already occurred, the insurer must reimburse the policyholder for the reasonable expenses incurred.
Also, for mitigation expenses to be reimbursed, the loss being mitigated usually must be covered under the policy. See Swire Pacific Holdings, Inc. v. Zurich Ins. Co., 139 F.Supp. 2d 1374 (S.D. Fla. 2001). Likewise, in Witcher Const. Co. v. Saint Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co., 550 N.W.2d 1 ( Minn. Ct. App. 1996), the Court held that the policyholder’s obligation to prevent or mitigate harm does not arise until insured subject matter is threatened by covered loss, but if the prevented loss falls within an exclusion, the insured has no right to indemnity for its efforts.
Therefore, if the loss is determined not to be covered by the policy, the insurer may not have an obligation to reimburse the policyholder for expenses associated with temporary repairs. This, however, should not deter anyone from taking all reasonable steps to prevent further harm. Many times, there is coverage for things which at first glance may seem to be excluded by the policy. With the exclusions, exceptions to exclusions, and the like, insurance policies are a maze of coverages, and many require a professional to interpret. Even if you think a loss may not be covered, it is important to take the steps reasonably necessary to prevent any further damage so as not to provide the insurer with a possible basis for denying a claim that turns out to be covered.