Management Specialists v. Northfield Ins.

Decision Date21 October 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03CA1730.,03CA1730.
Citation117 P.3d 32
PartiesMANAGEMENT SPECIALISTS, INC., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. NORTHFIELD INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtColorado Supreme Court
117 P.3d 32
No. 03CA1730.
Colorado Court of Appeals, Division II.
October 21, 2004.

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Jeff Detlefs, P.C., Jeff Detlefs, Lakewood, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Montgomery Kolodny Amatuzio & Dusbabek, LLP, David C. Fawley, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee.


In this declaratory judgment action concerning insurance coverage, plaintiff, Management Specialists, Inc. (MSI), appeals the summary judgment in favor of defendant, Northfield Insurance Company (Northfield), in which the trial court determined that MSI was not entitled to a defense or coverage by Northfield in two underlying lawsuits. MSI

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also appeals the award to Northfield of costs for its expert witness. We affirm.

MSI is a real estate property management company whose principal clients are homeowners associations. Under its standard contract with clients, MSI acts as a managing agent and is sometimes required to obtain liability insurance for the homeowners associations, including directors and officers liability coverage. The standard contract also requires MSI to carry its own general liability, workers' compensation, employee dishonesty, and errors and omissions insurance.

At all times relevant to this action, MSI had an errors and omissions liability policy in effect issued by Northfield, covering negligent acts, errors, or omissions in MSI's performance of professional services. As pertinent here, the policy contained an exclusion stating that the policy did not apply to "[a]ny damages arising out of the failure or inability to maintain adequate levels or types of insurance."

Two MSI clients, Encore and Sixth Avenue, initiated actions against MSI. Encore alleged that MSI failed to purchase directors and officers liability coverage for Encore as required by the parties' contract. MSI sought defense of that suit from Northfield, but Northfield refused to provide a defense or indemnification.

Sixth Avenue sought damages for misrepresentation, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract, asserting that MSI made late premium payments to Sixth Avenue's insurance carrier and ultimately allowed its liability coverage to lapse. MSI sought defense of that action from Northfield, which retained defense counsel and began defending MSI in the litigation. Northfield did not, however, issue a reservation of its rights under the policy.

Approximately five months later, following MSI's commencement of this declaratory judgment action against Northfield seeking defense and indemnification in the Encore litigation, Northfield withdrew its defense in the Sixth Avenue case, asserting that all the claims in that lawsuit were excluded by the quoted policy exclusion. Thereafter, MSI amended its complaint to seek a declaration that it was entitled to a defense and indemnification in both cases under its policy with Northfield. It also asserted a claim for bad faith breach of the insurance contract.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Finding that the quoted exclusion unambiguously excluded coverage and negated the duty to defend for the two underlying suits, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Northfield and awarded costs. This appeal followed.


MSI contends that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Northfield. Specifically, MSI asserts that the policy exclusion is ambiguous because it is susceptible of different meanings. It argues that the exclusion refers to damages arising out of MSI's failure to maintain insurance coverage for itself and that, so interpreted, the policy does not exclude coverage for the two claims. We disagree.

The interpretation of an insurance contract presents a question of law that we review de novo. Union Ins. Co. v. Houtz, 883 P.2d 1057 (Colo.1994).

Under well-settled principles of contract interpretation, the words of the contract should be given their plain meaning according to common usage, and strained constructions should be avoided. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Huizar, 52 P.3d 816 (Colo.2002); Allstate Ins. Co. v. Starke, 797 P.2d 14 (Colo.1990). Accordingly, we construe the terms of an insurance policy as a person of ordinary intelligence would understand them. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Nissen, 851 P.2d 165 (Colo.1993).

Unless there is an ambiguity in the policy language, the policy must be enforced as written. Jones v. USAA Cas. Ins. Co., 952 P.2d 819 (Colo.App.1997). In determining whether there is an ambiguity in a policy provision, we evaluate the policy as a whole and construe the language in harmony with the plain meaning of the words employed. A mere disagreement between the parties regarding the meaning of a policy term does not create an ambiguity. State Farm Mut.

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Auto. Ins. Co. v. Stein, 940 P.2d 384 (Colo.1997).

If an ambiguity exists, the policy language must be construed against the drafter of the document and in favor of providing coverage to the insured. Cyprus Amax Minerals Co. v. Lexington Ins. Co., 74 P.3d 294 (Colo.2003).

An insurer must draft exclusionary clauses in clear and specific language. To benefit from an exclusionary clause, an insurer must establish that the exclusion applies and is not subject to any other reasonable interpretation. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. LaRose, 919 P.2d 915 (Colo.App.1996).

Here, viewing the exclusion in the context of the entire policy, we perceive no ambiguity. The policy provides coverage for MSI's negligent acts, errors, or omissions in its performance of professional services, but excludes coverage for damages arising out of its failure or inability to maintain adequate levels or types of insurance as part of those services. The exclusion means simply that MSI's failure to maintain insurance of any kind, whether for itself or for others, is excluded from coverage. The exclusion does not differentiate between types of insurance or for whom the insurance is maintained.

Contrary to MSI's assertion, the fact that the exclusion does not distinguish between different types of insurance or for whom it is maintained does not render it ambiguous. MSI essentially confuses what the exclusion means with what the provision includes. The exclusion means failure to maintain insurance — any kind or type of insurance whatsoever. It includes multiple situations in which MSI fails to do so.

Nevertheless, MSI asserts that because its supplemental application specifically mentioned certain activities that were excluded from coverage, but did not specifically mention obtaining insurance for others, the parties did not intend to exclude it from coverage. We reject that argument.

The supplemental application asked numerous questions about MSI's professional activities. Following some of the questions is a disclaimer, informing the applicant that some activities are or might be excluded and advising the applicant to read the policy carefully upon its issuance. However, the absence of a specific disclaimer in the application following a question regarding maintaining insurance for clients does not alter the meaning of the exclusion. Both the application and the policy clearly advise the insured to read the entire policy because some activities may be excluded. Accordingly, we reject this contention.


MSI nevertheless contends that, with regard to the Encore litigation, the exclusion does not apply because the claimed error is a...

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