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Cameron v. USAA Property and Casualty Insurance Co.

July 29, 1999

ALLAN W. CAMERON, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
USAA PROPERTY AND CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, APPELLEE.



Before Schwelb, Ruiz, and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge:

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Frederick H. Weisberg, Trial Judge)

Argued April 15, 199

Allan W. Cameron and Rebecca Hancock Cameron appeal from an order of the trial court, dated April 16, 1998, granting summary judgment in favor of USAA Property and Casualty Insurance Company in a suit by the Camerons in which they challenged the denial of benefits under an "all-risk" homeowner's insurance policy. The trial Judge held that recovery for water damage to property located in the Camerons' basement following a major snowstorm was barred by an exclusion from the policy for certain losses caused by "surface water." We conclude that this exclusion unambiguously bars the Camerons' claim. Accordingly, we affirm.

I.

THE FACTS

In January 1996, a series of severe winter storms blanketed the District of Columbia in several feet of snow. Approximately thirty inches of snow accumulated on the Camerons' uncovered outdoor patio and on other parts of their property.

On January 19, as a result of rising temperatures and torrential rain, the snow began to melt. The inclement weather had previously damaged two gutters on the Camerons' roof. The disabling of the gutters contributed to the accumulation of additional snow and rain on the patio, and the water began to overflow. The patio had been graded so that excess water would drain into the driveway, but in this case the accumulation was so great that some of the water ran down a stairwell leading from the patio to the basement, past a blocked drain, and under the basement door. The flooding took a heavy toll on the personal property inside the basement. The Camerons asked USAA to compensate them for the damage.

The Camerons' policy provided coverage for any direct physical loss to personal property resulting from the "[w]eight of ice, snow or sleet which causes damage to property contained in a building, [a]ccidental discharge or overflow of water or steam from within a plumbing . . . system," or "[f]reezing of a plumbing, heating, air conditioning or automatic fire protective sprinkler system or of a household appliance," unless such a loss was the subject of an exclusion.

Notwithstanding any implication in its title that an all-risk policy protects the insured from all risks, however, the policy went on to provide:

"1. We do not insure for loss caused directly or indirectly by any of the following. Such loss is excluded regardless of any other cause or event contributing concurrently or in any sequence to the loss."

"c. Water Damage, meaning:"

"(1) flood, surface water, waves, tidal water, overflow of a body of water, or spray from any of these, whether or not driven by wind. . . ." (Emphasis added.)

USAA denied the Camerons' claim for damage to property in the basement, explaining that the loss was excluded from coverage because it was caused, directly or indirectly, by surface water. *fn1 Contending that they were entitled to recover on the policy because the water which damaged their basement property was not surface water, the Camerons brought suit against USAA in the Superior Court. USAA filed a motion for summary judgment.

On April 15, 1998, the trial Judge granted USAA's motion in a written order in which he reasoned, in pertinent part, as follows:

"The parties agree that "surface water," although not specifically defined in the contract or in the reported cases of this jurisdiction, means:"

"[W]ater from melted snow, falling rain or rising springs, lying or flowing naturally on the earth's surface, not gathering into or forming any more definite body of water than a mere bog, swamp, slough or marsh and lost by percolation, evaporation or natural drainage. Surface water is distinguished from the water of a natural stream, lake or pond, is not of a substantial or permanent existence, has no banks, and ...


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