HELENA, Mont. (Legal Newsline) – The Montana Supreme Court issued a decision July 19 ruling that a boulder that thundered down a hillside and crashed into a house was to be considered a landslide for insurance purposes.
In March 2014, a large boulder fell from a hillside approximately 440 feet above Russell Parker’s vacation home in Sheridan, crashing into the dwelling. Parker filed a claim with his insurance company, Safeco.
“The reason the rock in the Parker case became dislodged was a fact issue that the parties’ experts addressed,” Craig Bennion, attorney with Cozen O’Connor, told Legal Newsline.
An engineer hired by Safeco traced the path of the boulder from where it originated and observed soil at its original site on the cliff.
“The experts agreed on the role of the freeze/thaw cycle in dislodging the rock,” Bennion said.
Parker hired his own expert who agreed with Safeco’s engineer that the freeze/thaw process played a role in loosening the boulder. His expert, however, did not reference soil at the cliff and concluded that soil was not involved, because the decomposition of the rock matter did not create a soil that would expand when freezing.
“Safeco’s expert only focused on the expansion of the soil and water in the rock. Parker’s expert observed no soil, only ‘weathered granitic gneiss,'” Bennion said.
The Montana Supreme Court decided that this difference in opinion was insignificant, because the real issue was whether the falling rock constituted earth movement, regardless of how it became dislodged.
“The court answered that question by examining the wording of the insurance policy exclusion,” Bennion said.
The exclusion included within the term “earth movement” such events like earthquakes, landslides, mudflows, lava flows and fallout of volcanic particulate matter and did not restrict the term’s meaning to soil. The court concluded that the language of the exclusion did not support distinguishing rock from soil when applying “earth movement” to an event, Bennion said.
“‘Earth’ as used in the exclusion, was broadly intended to include all natural material that compromises the surface of the earth, including rocks and soil,” Bennion said.
When the large boulder dislodged and fell from the hillside, damaging Parker’s house, the event was considered to be an “earth movement” in the same manner as if a mass of soil had become dislodged and damaged the house, the court ruled.
“The policy interpretation analysis faced by the court in the Parker case is similar to many other loss scenarios that arise under property insurance properties,” Bennion said.
Those scenarios include windstorms, water damage, flood or fire damage.
“Since coverage provisions and exclusions cannot, as a practical matter, specifically describe all possible loss mechanisms, a certain degree of interpretation is frequently necessary,” Bennion said.
The Parker case focused on the language of the exclusion to reach the decision, Bennion said. It also recognized that a disagreement between litigants or between different courts does not necessarily create ambiguity.