Florida Supreme Court Adopts Concurrent-Cause Doctrine

Resolving a split among lower-level appeals courts, the Florida Supreme Court has adopted the concurrent-cause doctrine, ruling that coverage exists under an all-risk property policy when multiple perils combined to create a loss and at least one of the perils is covered by the terms of the policy.
Under the facts outlined in Sebo v. American Home Assurance Co., No. SC14-897 (Fla. Dec. 1, 2016), John Sebo purchased a Naples, Florida home in April 2005, when it was four years old. American Home Assurance Company AHAC) provided homeowners insurance as of the date of the purchase. The policy, which insured against “all risks,” was issued through a private client group and was referred to as a manuscript policy. It was not a standard form but instead was created specifically for the Sebo residence. The house and other permanent structures were insured for over $8,000,000. The policy also provided additional coverage for loss of use of the home.

Shortly after Sebo bought the residence, water began to intrude during rainstorms. Major water leaks were reported to Sebo’s property manager as early as May 31, 2005. She prepared a list of problems: leaks in the main house at the foyer, the living room, dining room, piano room, exercise room, master bathroom, and upstairs bathroom. By June 22, 2005, the property manager advised Sebo of these leaks in writing. It became clear that the house suffered from major design and construction defects. After an August rain, paint along the windows just fell off the wall. In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma struck Naples and further damaged the Sebo residence.

Sebo did not report the water intrusion and other damages to AHAC until December 30, 2005. AHAC investigated the claim, and in April 2006 it denied coverage for most of the claimed losses under the policy’s “Faulty, Inadequate or Defective Planning” exclusion. The policy provided $50,000 in coverage for mold, and AHAC tendered that amount to Sebo but stated that “the balance of the damages to the house, including any window, door, and other repairs, is not covered.” In May 2008, Sebo renewed his claim and sent more information about the damages to AHAC, but AHAC again denied the claim except for the $50,000 in mold damages.

The residence could not be repaired and was eventually demolished. In January 2007, Sebo filed suit against a number of defendants, including the sellers of the property, the architect who designed the residence, and the construction company that built it. He alleged that the home had been negligently designed and constructed and that the sellers had fraudulently failed to disclose the defects in the property. Sebo eventually amended his complaint in November 2009, adding AHAC as a defendant and seeking a declaration that the policy provided coverage for his damages. After Sebo settled his claims against a majority of all other defendants, the trial proceeded only on his declaratory action against AHAC. The jurors found in favor of Sebo, and the court eventually entered judgment against AHAC.

On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court rejected the use of the efficient proximate cause (EPC) doctrine when independent perils converge and no single cause can be considered the sole or proximate cause. The court observed that rainwater and hurricane winds (covered causes of loss) combined with the excluded defective construction to cause the damage to the property. “[T]here is no reasonable way to distinguish the proximate cause of Sebo’s property loss – the rain and construction defects acted in concert to create the destruction of Sebo’s home. As such it would not be feasible to apply the EPC doctrine because no efficient cause can be determined.” Rather, the court adopted the concurrent-cause doctrine, which provides that coverage may exist where an insured risk constitutes a concurrent cause of the loss even when it is not the prime or efficient cause.