The Tennessee Supreme Court has refused to construe an ambiguous definition of actual cash value to allow for deduction of labor costs as part of depreciation calculations where that subset of repair costs are not clearly addressed in the policy. Despite the split of authority nationwide, the Tennessee case presents a straightforward application of policy interpretation principles to a common valuation issue in first-party property claims.
In Lammert v. Auto-Owners (Mutual) Insurance Co., No. M2017-2546-SC-R23-CV (Tenn. Apr. 15, 2019), insureds brought a class-action lawsuit against their property insurer, Auto-Owners, alleging breach of contract. The plaintiffs each owned buildings damaged by a hail storm and had each submitted claims to Auto-Owners. Auto-Owners accepted the claims and determined that the losses would be determined on an actual cash value basis. In performing those valuations, Auto-Owners depreciated both the building materials and the labor costs associated with repairing the properties. The insureds challenged the labor cost depreciation. Auto-Owners moved to dismiss the lawsuit. In response, the insureds requested that the district court certify to the Tennessee Supreme Court whether, “[u]nder Tennessee law, may an insurer in making an actual cash value payment withhold a portion of repair labor as depreciation when the policy (1) defines actual cash value as ‘the cost to replace damaged property with new property of similar quality and features reduced by the amount of depreciation applicable to the damaged property immediately prior to the loss,’ or (2) states that ‘actual cash value includes a deduction for depreciation?”’
In their briefing to the Court, the insureds asserted that to allow for depreciation of both materials and labor would defeat the purpose of indemnity, which is to make the insureds whole after the hail storm. In response, Auto-Owners argued that applying depreciation only to materials would result in a windfall to the insureds by leaving them in a better position than they were in before the loss (by receiving full value of non-depreciated labor costs). Given the policy’s lack of clarity as to whether depreciation should apply to labor costs, the Court sided with the insureds.
The Court discussed the split of authority among state and federal courts nationwide, but applied basic policy interpretation principles that undefined policy terms are to be construed according to their plain, ordinary, popular meaning and that ambiguous policy language must be construed against the insurer and in favor of coverage. The Court found that both parties presented plausible interpretations of the policies, neither of which explicitly stated whether labor expenses were depreciable when calculating actual cash value.
The Court recognized the principle under Tennessee law that the purpose of indemnity insurance is to reimburse and restore the insured to the position he or she was in before the loss. The Court also looked to the dictionary meaning of “depreciation,” which is “a reduction in value or price of something; specif[ically] a decline in an asset’s value because of use, wear, obsolescence, or age.” Despite Auto-Owners’ plausible interpretation that all components of repair costs, including labor, are subject to depreciation, the Court found that it is also reasonable that a homeowner would understand that depreciation would only be applicable to material goods that can age and experience wear and tear and that an insurer calculating actual cash value of repair costs would only apply depreciation to the physical materials that actually deteriorated. If Auto-Owners had wanted a more technical definition of depreciation that is not evident on the face of the policy, they had the burden of clarifying the policy to incorporate that meaning.
The Lammert decision applies bedrock contract interpretation principles to resolve ambiguous policy language. The decision is also interesting because it addresses a basic property valuation issue that is often disputed but rarely litigated because contested valuation issues that relate to the value or quantum of loss suffered are frequently resolved through the appraisal process, even though issues of policy interpretation and construction should be determined by a court. The concepts of market value, replacement cost, and actual cash value are relevant in nearly every property insurance claim, but despite their ubiquity, the applicable valuation method must be clearly set forth in the policy. Where there is ambiguity, it should be resolved in favor of the insured. This is especially true where, as in Lammert, the undefined term’s ordinary meaning conflicts with the insurer’s preferred technical or industry-specific meaning.