Contractors and owners obtain builders risk policies to protect themselves from risks associated with construction. But a lack of care in understanding and negotiating the provision of the construction agreement governing the builders-risk policy and the policy itself may lead the parties to expose themselves to needless and significant liability.

What owners and general contractors should do to protect themselves

If a construction contract requires the owner or the general contractor to obtain a builders risk policy—and it should—then that party should in fact obtain the policy. This may seem painfully obvious, but sometimes parties do not obtain required policies.

Courts have held, unsurprisingly, that a construction contract calling for a builders-risk policy means what it says. If the party whom the contract required to obtain a builders-risk policy does not obtain a policy, that party assumes the risk of loss that ought to have been covered by the policy. So, if a construction agreement requires, say, the owner to obtain a builders-risk policy, the owner should obtain the policy, and the other parties relying upon the policy should confirm the existence of the policy and its terms.

The Builders-Risk Policy Should Allow for the Construction Contract’s Mutual Waiver of Subrogation

Construction contracts frequently include a clause in which the owner and the contractor, both covered by the builders-risk policy, waive their right of subrogation against each other regarding any damages covered by that policy. The owner should not be able to sue the contractor for a loss if the owner has already obtained builders-risk insurance that would make him whole (or vice versa)—the mutual waiver of subrogation prevents the owner or the contractor from recovering twice.

However, if the builders-risk policy itself contains a provision preventing the parties from waiving subrogation, the execution of the construction contract may violate the policy conditions and might prevent recovery under the builders-risk policy.

As the owner and contractor negotiate the construction contract and the builders-risk insuring agreement, they need to pay attention to the provisions in each agreement governing subrogation. Broadly, they need to pay attention to the effect that each agreement has on the other, and should ensure that the builders-risk policy does not prevent the parties from waiving their subrogation rights. Moreover, they need to pay attention to the interaction between a builders-risk policy and any property insurance policy the owner may have (see below). The waiver of subrogation should apply to claims brought under the property policy for a few years after termination of the builders-risk policy.

The Construction Contract Should Specify When and under What Conditions the Owner Can Terminate the Builders-Risk Policy

Builders-risk policies are, as their name suggests, designed to cover risk arising from building. Once the structure is built, though, the builders-risk policy usually terminates. Builders-risk policies also typically terminate on the occurrence of a number of other conditions.

For example, the builders-risk policy may end when the equipment in a plant is first energized, on the theory that once you fire up the plant, it is no longer under construction but is operating as a business and therefore presents different insurable risks.

Once builder-risk insurance terminates, usually the owner’s property insurance kicks in. Property insurance, however, does not usually protect the contractor because the contractor is not a named insured under that policy, and it will not protect against all the events that a builders-risk policy would. If an insurable event occurs that would have been covered by the builders-risk policy after the policy has been terminated, there may be no coverage, possibly causing the parties to argue about whether the policy was properly terminated. If the owner terminates the builders-risk policy without telling the general contractor—and yes, this does happen—the parties will then argue whether the termination actually occurred.

Simply, unexpected termination of a builders-risk policy can ruin your day. The term of a builders-risk policy, then, is a critical point to negotiate and to stick to. Owners should not terminate a builders-risk policy early, and contractors should ask for a provision in the policy requiring the owner to give them notice before termination of the policy so that the contractor can arrange for adequate coverage elsewhere.