A Chilling Effect: The Fifth District Upholds Insurer’s Denial of Coverage for Frozen Pipe Burst

Recently, an Illinois appellate court affirmed a ruling an insurer did not owe coverage for damage to a building from a bursting frozen pipe. On appeal, the Fifth District agreed with the reasoning employed by the lower court, resting its decision on the warehouse owners’ failure to “maintain heat in the building or structure” to the best of their ability, as required by the policy. 

The pipe burst occurred in February 2011. After this event, the insurer invoked an exclusion in its policy that precluded coverage. The exclusion indicated heat in the building had to be maintained to the best of the owners’ abilities. 

The court’s analysis relied heavily on interpreting the language, “best to maintain heat in the building” in order to understand the owners’ obligations. The lower court, using a vast array of persuasive authority, pegged the policy’s phrase “do your best” to mean “reasonable efforts” must be made in maintaining heat in the building. The appellate court agreed and expanded on this idea by finding reasonable efforts are to be gauged in light of the specific circumstances faced. 

At trial, one of the building owners testified that he had previously lived in the building and the pipes had burst on three different occasions. Within this same time period, the building’s heat pump was stolen. The owner subsequently disconnected water service to the building. Once water service was disconnected, frozen pipes were no longer an issue.  Water service to the building was restored in January 2011, despite the owner knowing the furnace could not prevent frozen pipes. Additionally, there was still no heat pump. 

Despite unwavering knowledge of these issues, the owner failed to repair, fix, or modify the heating system. In a last-ditch effort to maintain proper heat, the owners used space heaters to warm the part of the building where the pipes were located. 

The trier of fact found the use of space heaters was not a “reasonable effort” to maintain the building’s heat. Through owner testimony, it was well established that the building’s pipes had previously burst and no steps were taken to prevent such bursts. When the owners reconnected the water, they knowingly risked the pipes bursting yet again. Ultimately, the lack of reasonable efforts made by the owners to maintain proper heat triggered the insurer’s exclusion, and coverage was barred.  Wells et al. v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Ins. Co., case number 5019-0460, Appellate Court of Illinois, Fifth District.  

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