Van Natta v. Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) SE

Decision Date16 June 2021
Docket NumberNo. 3:18-cv-438 (SRU),3:18-cv-438 (SRU)
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
PartiesLIETTE VAN NATTA, et al., Plaintiffs, v. GREAT LAKES REINSURANCE (UK) SE, Defendant.

LIETTE VAN NATTA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GREAT LAKES REINSURANCE (UK) SE, Defendant.

No. 3:18-cv-438 (SRU)

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT

June 16, 2021


MEMORANDUM OF DECISION

On March 16, 2016, Steven Van Natta ("Van Natta") arrived at his second home, which was located at 58 Lebanon Road in Bethany, Connecticut (the "Property"). Van Natta found the Property completely ruined: Water and mold were everywhere. (I will refer to that damage as the "Loss.") This case concerns an insurance dispute arising from the Loss.

Van Natta and his mother1 (together, the "Plaintiffs") sue Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) SE, now known as Great Lakes Insurance SE ("Great Lakes"), for breach of an insurance contract (the "Policy"). Great Lakes has refused to provide insurance coverage for the Loss. After the Loss, the Plaintiffs paid out-of-pocket to gut the Property's interior, sold the Property at a significant discount in September 2017, and filed this suit seeking damages for what the cost of reconstruction would have been (they did not actually perform the reconstruction).

In May 2020, I granted in substantial part Great Lakes' motion for summary judgment. In December 2020, I held a two-day bench trial on the surviving portion of the Plaintiffs' claim. At trial, the Plaintiffs argued that they are entitled to $32,273.86 under the Policy. Great Lakes argued that the Plaintiffs were entitled to nothing because Van Natta had not taken reasonable

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care to maintain heat at the Property. In the alternative, Great Lakes argued that, even if coverage was due under the Policy, the amount of damages totaled between $1,700 and $3,400.

Because the Plaintiffs have not established that they took reasonable care to maintain heat at the Property, the Loss was not covered under the Policy. Thus, Great Lakes is not liable for breach of contract. Judgment shall enter in favor of Great Lakes. The following constitutes my findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a).

I. The Policy

At the time of the Loss, the Plaintiffs were insureds on the Policy, a homeowners' insurance policy issued by Great Lakes. See Joint Trial Memorandum, Doc. No. 83-3 ("JTM"), at ¶ 16; Policy, Trial Ex. 1. The Policy covered the Loss because the Loss was a "direct physical loss" to "the dwelling on the residence premises." Policy, Trial Ex. 1; Trial Tr. (Day 2) at 4;2 JTM, Doc. No. 83-3, at ¶¶ 16-18. The Policy contained two relevant exclusions and one relevant exception. The first relevant exclusion was the "Mold Exclusion," which read, in part:

Notwithstanding any other provision in this Policy, there is no coverage . . . for any loss or damage involving in any way the actual or potential presence of mold, mildew or fungi of any kind whatsoever, whether or not directly or indirectly caused by or resulting from an insured peril.

Policy, Trial Ex. 1. Much of my summary judgment ruling was concerned with interpreting the Mold Exclusion. See Ruling, Doc. No. 69, at 23-30; Van Natta v. Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) SE, 462 F. Supp. 3d 113, 129-33 (D. Conn. 2020). However, as explained further below, this memorandum of decision does not address the Mold Exclusion.

The second relevant exclusion was the "Freezing Exclusion," which explained that Great Lakes did not insure

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for loss . . . [c]aused by . . . [f]reezing of a plumbing, heating, air conditioning or automatic fire protective sprinkler system or of a household appliance, or by discharge, leakage or overflow from within the system or appliance caused by freezing.

Policy, Trial Ex. 1. However, the Freezing Exclusion did not exclude coverage in two situations:

if [the insureds] have used reasonable care to: (a) Maintain heat in the building; or (b) Shut off the water supply and drain all systems and appliances of water.

Id. Only the first exception (the "Heat Exception") is relevant here.3

II. Procedural Background

On February 8, 2018, the Plaintiffs filed a complaint in Connecticut Superior Court. See Compl., Doc. No. 1-1, at 5. On March 14, Great Lakes removed the case to this court. See Notice of Removal, Doc. No. 1, at 1. Discovery concluded in late spring 2019, and, in August 2019, Great Lakes made a motion for summary judgment. See Mot. for Summ. J., Doc. No. 44. On October 9, 2019, this case, which had initially been assigned to District Judge Warren W. Eginton, was transferred to me.

A. Summary Judgment Ruling

After holding a hearing in January 2020, see Min. Entry, Doc. No. 68, in May 2020, I issued a ruling granting in substantial part and denying in part Great Lakes' motion for summary judgment. See Ruling, Doc. No. 69; Van Natta v. Great Lakes Reinsurance (UK) SE, 462 F. Supp. 3d 113 (D. Conn. 2020).

First, I held that the Freezing Exclusion applied to exclude coverage because "[t]here is no genuine dispute that the cause of the Loss was a freeze-up." Ruling, Doc. No. 69, at 18. However, I also held that a genuine dispute of material fact existed regarding whether the Heat

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Exception applied, which, if it did apply, would reinstate coverage under the Policy. See id. at 16, 18-22. I noted that my conclusion was based in large part on the fact that "one c[ould] . . . (weakly) infer from the evidence"—"[d]espite the strong contradictory evidence"—that Van Natta "was at the Property on February 11, 2016." Id. at 22. Thus, I denied Great Lakes' motion for summary judgment based on the Freezing Exclusion.

Second, I held that the Mold Exclusion applied to bar most, but not all, coverage under the Policy. Although Great Lakes asked me to treat the Mold Exclusion as an anti-concurrent causation ("ACC") clause, I declined to do so and, instead, chose to interpret the Mold Exclusion "according to its unambiguous, plain terms." Id. at 24. Boiled down, the Mold Exclusion read: "There is no coverage for any loss or damage involving in any way the actual presence of mold." Id. at 26 (cleaned up). I then examined the photographic and other evidence—room-by-room and area-by-area—to determine what parts of the Loss involved the presence of mold. See id. at 27-30. The only parts of the Loss that possibly did not involve mold—and so the only areas of the Property for which the Plaintiffs might be entitled to coverage under the Policy—were (1) the garage, (2) the storage area above the garage, (3) the crawl area through the master bedroom, and (4) the "office." See id. at 30. Thus, I granted Great Lakes' motion for summary judgment with respect to all portions of the Loss other than those four areas.

Finally, I denied Great Lakes' motion insofar as it claimed the Plaintiffs' damages were too speculative to establish the "damage" element of a breach of contract claim. Id. at 30-37.

B. Motion for Reconsideration

One week after I issued my summary judgment ruling, the Plaintiffs made a motion for reconsideration. See Mot. for Reconsideration, Doc. No. 71. The Plaintiffs agreed with my conclusion that the Mold Exclusion was not an ACC clause, but argued that my decision to give

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effect to the unambiguous terms of the Mold Exclusion was error because I "overlooked, and thus did not apply, Connecticut's Efficient Proximate Cause Test." Id. at 4. In September 2020, I issued an order denying the Plaintiff's motion for reconsideration because "it assume[d] that the only way to contract around the efficient proximate cause doctrine is through an ACC clause," which, in my view, is an incorrect interpretation of the law. See Order, Doc. No. 75, at 9-13.

C. Motion in Limine

Following my ruling on the Plaintiffs' motion for reconsideration, I set this matter down for a bench trial in December 2020. See Conf. Mem. and Order, Doc. No. 78. On November 11, Great Lakes submitted a motion in limine. See Mot. in Limine, Doc. No. 80. On December 2, I issued an order denying Great Lakes' motion. See Order, Doc. No. 82.

In its motion in limine, Great Lakes asked me to exclude evidence regarding two topics. First, Great Lakes requested that I preclude "the submission of evidence regarding property damages to [the] 'office' . . . because the damage to this area involved mold and therefore is precluded from coverage." Mem. in Supp. Mot. in Limine, Doc. No. 80-17, at 2. Great Lakes argued that "based on the clear photographic evidence, it cannot be disputed that the mold was present in the office area of the Premises following the pipe burst." Id. at 8. I denied Great Lakes' request because Great Lakes was "simply ask[ing] me to determine the sufficiency of the evidence and to resolve a factual dispute," which "is not the proper function of a motion in limine." Order, Doc. No. 82 (citing, inter alia, Williams v. Rushmore Loan Mgmt. Servs. LLC, 2017 WL 822793, at *1 (D. Conn. Mar. 2, 2017)).

Second, Great Lakes requested that I preclude both expert reports prepared by Jim Maguire—the Plaintiffs' expert on reconstruction costs—and "any testimony with regard to the opinions expressed therein" because "the Maguire Reports do not meet the standard of

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admissibility set forth in Federal Rule of Evidence 702." Mem. in Supp. Mot. in Limine, Doc. No. 80-17, at 2, 8. More specifically, Great Lakes argued that Maguire's "[e]xpert [r]eports, testimony and the opinions expressed [therein] must be excluded because Maguire provides no facts or data to support his conclusions or indicate that his opinions are based on reliable data or methodology." Id. at 13. I denied without prejudice Great Lakes' request. I explained that "Daubert and its progeny do not apply straightforwardly in the context of bench trials" because "in a bench trial, a party's attempt to exclude an expert's testimony under Daubert is tantamount to asking the Court to gate-keep expert testimony from itself." Order, Doc. No. 82 (quoting Kortright Capital Partners LP v. Investcorp Inv. Advisers Ltd., 392 F. Supp. 3d 382, 397 (S.D.N.Y. 2019); 720 Lex Acquisition LLC v. Guess? Retail, Inc., 2014 WL 4184691, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 22, 2014)) (cleaned...

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