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Chase v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co.

September 13, 2001

FLORENCE CHASE, APPELLANT,
v.
STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, APPELLEE.



Before Farrell, Reid, and Glickman, Associate Judges.

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

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Hon. Susan R. Winfield, Trial Judge

Argued April 24, 2000

Florence Chase's home collapsed after a water overflow from a burst pipe caused the movement of soil beneath the foundation of the house. Chase had homeowners insurance under a policy issued by State Farm Fire and Casualty Company ("State Farm"), but State Farm denied coverage on the ground that the damage fell within an exclusion in the policy for losses attributable to "earth movement." The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm, and Chase has appealed. We are constrained to hold that the State Farm policy unambiguously excludes coverage for Chase's loss. Our holding is subject, however, to the potential applicability of a provision in the "additional coverages" section of the policy that neither party has addressed. We remand solely for consideration of that provision.

I.

Chase bought her home in August of 1986 for $32,000. The main water pipes, along with a hot water heater, a furnace and a sump pump, were located directly underneath the structure, in an enclosed crawl space. The crawl space was uninsulated, and each winter the pipes would freeze, burst, and have to be repaired.

On February 5, 1996, a "bitter cold" day, Chase came home from work and heard water running. She looked in the crawl space and saw that approximately three feet of water had accumulated from a burst pipe. Chase called the Water and Sewer Authority to shut off the water supply, and then left to stay at her mother's house. At some point in the next few days, Chase returned to her house, did not hear water running, and checked the crawl space. She found that her sump pump had failed to drain the water, which was at the same level as on February 5. On February 12, Chase returned again, and discovered to her dismay that the living room floor had collapsed and the fireplace had separated from the wall. The extensive damage made the house uninhabitable. Chase notified State Farm the same day.

State Farm sent Edgar O. Seaquist, a structural engineer, to inspect the property. In due course Seaquist rendered the opinion that the house

had experienced a massive failure of the foundation supporting the chimney-fireplace system and the floor structure as a direct result of the vertical and horizontal movement of the earth banks at the face of the central foundation. This occurred when the soil became water saturated and its properties changed so that the soil flowed out from below the foundations, thereby eliminating the support for the chimney-fireplace system and the floor structure.

Based on Seaquist's assessment, which is uncontested, State Farm denied Chase's insurance claim. State Farm relied on the following "earth movement" exclusion in its homeowners policy:

We do not insure under any coverage for any loss which would not have occurred in the absence of one or more of the following excluded events. We do not insure for such loss regardless of: (a) the cause of the excluded event; or (b) other causes of the loss; or (c) whether other causes acted concurrently or in any sequence with the excluded event to produce the loss; or (d) whether the event occurs suddenly or gradually, involves isolated or widespread damage, arises from natural or external forces, or occurs as a result of any combination of these:

b. Earth Movement, meaning the sinking, rising, shifting, expanding or contracting of earth, all whether combined with water or not. Earth movement includes but is not limited to earthquake, landslide, mudflow, sinkhole, subsidence and erosion.

Upon State Farm's denial of her claim, Chase filed a complaint against the company in Superior Court. In her complaint, Chase asserted causes of action based on breach of contract and negligent inspection of her property. State Farm moved for summary judgment, relying on the earth movement exclusion and Seaquist's opinion, quoted above, regarding the cause of Chase's loss. *fn1 The trial court granted summary judgment for State Farm on the breach of contract count, "for the reasons ...


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