All Claims Arising from Negligent Design of Two, Nearly Identical Bridges Constitute “Related Claims”

In a win for an insurer represented by Wiley Rein, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, applying North Carolina law, has held that all claims against an engineering firm for the negligent design of two bridges constituted “related claims,” subject to a single limit of liability.  Stewart Eng’g, Inc. v. Cont’l Cas. Co., No. 5:15-CV-377-D (E.D.N.C. Mar. 20, 2017).

A community college retained various professionals, including the insured engineering firm, to build an expansion on its Raleigh, North Carolina campus.  The engineering firm was retained to design two pedestrian bridges.  For aesthetic reasons, the community college insisted on wooden frame bridges, and the engineering designed both bridges to include glue laminated wooden trusses, with notched ends, to connect to the supports.  When the concrete walkway was being poured on the first bridge, the bridge collapsed because the notched ends of the trusses were unable to support the weight of the concrete and resulted in the death of one construction worker and severe injuries to several others.  Within hours, the second bridge collapsed.  Investigations by the engineering firm and governmental authorities confirmed that the engineering firm’s design of notched ends of the trusses caused the collapse of both bridges.

The community college, the other professionals, and the construction workers sued the engineering firm for negligence.  The insurer paid the $3 million per claim limit of liability to defend and settle some, but not all, claims and contended that the payment of the single claim limit exhausted the limit of liability for all claims arising from the collapse of the bridges because they were “related claims.”  The policy defined “related claims” as “all claims arising out of . . . multiple wrongful acts that are logically or causally connected by any common fact, situation, event, transaction, advice, or decision[.]”  The engineering firm sued the insurer seeking a determination that that the claims were unrelated and seeking payment of the aggregate limit of liability for the defense and settlement of all other claims arising from the negligent design of the bridges.

In granting the insurer's motion for summary judgment, the court held that the policy’s related claims provision was unambiguous.  It also held that all bridge claims were “logically connected” because they arose from the insured’s provision of services under the same contract, involved the same engineer and project manager, and the collapse of both bridges was caused by the same design flaw.  The court rejected the insured’s arguments that a related claims determination required consideration of the fault of non-insureds and that the insurer had a duty to defend all claims, up to the aggregate limit of liability, because the claims were potentially unrelated.

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