907 S.W.2d 517 (Tex. 1995), D-4353, National Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa. v. CBI Industries, Inc.

Docket Nº:D-4353.
Citation:907 S.W.2d 517
Case Date:October 05, 1995
Court:Supreme Court of Texas

Page 517

907 S.W.2d 517 (Tex. 1995)


PENNSYLVANIA, et al., Petitioners,


CBI INDUSTRIES, INC., Respondents.

No. D-4353.

Supreme Court of Texas.

October 5, 1995

Argued Sept. 20, 1994.

Page 518

David W. Prasifka, Diane M. Guariglia, Barbara Lynn Hawley, Daniel F. Shank, Daniel J. Petroski, Houston, M. Elizabeth Medaglia, Washington, DC, Robert N. Kelly, Houston, Richard S. Kuhl, Washington, DC, Gorge B. Hall, New Orleans, LA, Kent E. Westmoreland, James P. Wallace, Houston, for petitioners.

Jordan Stanzler, Palo Alto, CA, Robert Alan Johnson, New York City, Robert M. Roach, Jr., Houston, Eugene R. Anderson, New York City, Ronald E. Cook, Stephen R. Sulentic, Houston, for respondents.


The Motion For Rehearing is overruled. Our opinion of March 2, 1995, is withdrawn and the following opinion is substituted.

In this action for damages, injunctive relief, and a declaration of coverage, the issue is whether so-called "absolute pollution exclusions" in insurance policies unambiguously apply to exclude damage coverage from an accidental explosion producing a toxic hydrofluoric acid cloud over a city. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant insurance companies. The court

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of appeals reversed the summary judgment and remanded the cause to the trial court. 860 S.W.2d 662. We agree with the trial court that the provisions unambiguously apply under the circumstances presented. We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and affirm the trial court's judgment.

CBI Industries, Inc. ("CBI") brought this action against various insurance companies which insured CBI under general liability policies. The insurers fall into three groups providing successive "layers" of coverage: (1) National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ("National Union"); (2) Anglo American Insurance Company, Ltd. and others (collectively "Anglo American"); and (3) Rome and Companies (collectively "Rome"). Each of the policies issued to CBI by these companies contained a version of what is known in the industry as an "absolute pollution exclusion." The National Union policy contained the following exclusion:

This policy does not apply to ... any Personal Injury or Property Damage arising out of the actual or threatened discharge, dispersal, release or escape of pollutants, anywhere in the world; ... "Pollutants" means any solid, liquid, gaseous or thermal irritant or contaminant, including smoke, vapor, soot, fumes, acids, alkalis, chemicals and waste material. Waste materials include materials which are intended to be or have been recycled, reconditioned or reclaimed.

The Anglo American and Rome policies contained this exclusion:

Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this policy, this policy is amended in that it shall not apply to any claim or claims: For personal injuries or property damages directly or indirectly caused by seepage or pollution or contamination of air, land, water or any other property, however caused and whenever occurring.

In October of 1987, CBI, through its wholly owned subsidiary CBI Na-Con, Inc. 1 , was working as a contractor for Marathon Petroleum Company ("Marathon") in connection with a periodic "turnaround" of Marathon's Texas City Refinery, during which the refinery is shut down and equipment removed for cleaning, maintenance and replacement. As contractor, CBI was supervising the removal by crane of the convection section of a heater unit. An accident occurred when the crane's load was dropped onto a pipe connected to a storage tank which contained hydrofluoric acid, a substance identified by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as a toxic waste. 2 CBI claims that Marathon, in contravention of standard industry practices, had failed to empty the storage tank prior to the commencement of the turnaround and that CBI was unaware of the presence of hydrofluoric acid in the tank prior to the accident.

In numerous lawsuits brought against CBI and others in connection with the accident, residents of Texas City and others alleged that they were injured when a large cloud of hydrofluoric acid was released as a result of the accident. CBI tendered these claims to National Union, Anglo American and Rome. All of the companies denied coverage and CBI filed this suit.

The insurance companies moved for summary judgment on the ground that the "absolute pollution exclusions" in their policies precluded coverage as a matter of law. CBI argued in response that the policies, by virtue of these exclusions, contained both patent and latent ambiguities. The trial court granted summary judgment for the insurance companies before CBI had the opportunity to obtain any documents through the discovery process. However, the trial court did accept for the record certain insurance industry documents which, CBI contends, indicate that "absolute pollution exclusions" such as those involved in this case are ambiguous and will not be read literally to exclude coverage for every situation involving the discharge of pollutants. 3

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Insurance policies are controlled by rules of interpretation and construction which are applicable to contracts generally. See Forbau v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, 876 S.W.2d 132 (Tex.1994); Barnett v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 723 S.W.2d 663, 665 (Tex.1987). The primary concern of a court in construing a written contract is to ascertain the true intent of the parties as expressed in the instrument. Forbau, 876 S.W.2d at 133. If a written contract is so worded that it can be given a definite or certain legal meaning, then it is not ambiguous. Coker v. Coker, 650 S.W.2d 391, 393 (Tex.1983); see also Universal C.I.T. Credit Corp. v. Daniel, 243 S.W.2d 154, 157 (Tex.1951). Parol evidence is not admissible for the purpose of creating an ambiguity. See Universal, 243 S.W.2d at 157; Lewis v. East Texas Finance Co., 136 Tex. 149, 146 S.W.2d 977, 980 (1941).

If, however, the language of a policy or contract is subject to two or more reasonable interpretations, it is ambiguous. See Glover v. National Insurance Underwriters, 545 S.W.2d 755, 761 (Tex.1977); see also Coker, 650 S.W.2d at 393; Universal, 243 S.W.2d at 157. Whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law for the court to decide by looking at the contract as a whole in light of the circumstances present when the contract was entered. See Coker, 650 S.W.2d at 394; R & P Enterprises v. LaGuarta, Gavrel & Kirk, Inc., 596 S.W.2d 517, 518 (Tex.1980). Only where a contract is first determined to be ambiguous may the courts consider the parties' interpretation, see Sun Oil Co. (Delaware) v. Madeley, 626 S.W.2d 726, 732 (Tex.1981), and admit extraneous evidence to determine the true meaning of the instrument. See R & P Enterprises, 596 S.W.2d at 518.

An ambiguity in a contract may be said to be "patent" or "latent." A patent ambiguity is evident on the face of the contract. See Universal Home Builders, Inc. v. Farmer, 375 S.W.2d 737, 742 (Tex.Civ.App.--Tyler 1964, no writ). A latent ambiguity arises when a contract which is unambiguous on its face is applied to the subject matter with which it deals and an ambiguity appears by reason of some collateral matter. 4 See Murphy v. Dilworth, 137 Tex. 32, 151 S.W.2d 1004 (1941); see also Bache Halsey Stuart Shields, Inc. v. Alamo Sav. Ass'n, 611 S.W.2d 706, 708 (Tex.Civ.App.--San Antonio 1980, no writ). If a latent ambiguity arises from this application, parol evidence is admissible for the purpose of ascertaining the true intention of the parties as expressed in the agreement. See Murphy, 151 S.W.2d at 1005.

In this case, the court of appeals did not decide that the contract was either patently or latently ambiguous. Rather, the court...

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