Vacancy problems are becoming widespread as the economy and real estate market deteriorate. The FC&S Bulletin recently published an article, Active Occupancy: Elucidating the Vacancy Exclusion, which ran in the January edition of Claims Magazine. The article discussed this troubling clause which is becoming more commonplace. I suggest that all claims and coverage professionals subscribe to these publications because they usually have relevant discussions of claims issues such as this exclusionary clause.
The article correctly noted the generally accepted difference between a structure that is "vacant" and one that is "unoccupied."
“Vacant” or “Unoccupied”?
Courts have long defined “vacant” in insurance policies as meaning empty of inanimate objects — as opposed to “unoccupied,” which they have defined as being void of human habitation. For example, in Myers v. Merrimack Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 788 F.2d 468 (7th Cir. 1986), an apartment building was deemed “vacant” and not merely “unoccupied” in regard to a fire loss. The court found that the loss was excluded where apartments in a building, except for some stoves and refrigerators, were entirely empty for approximately 18 months, lacking both tenants and inanimate objects. (emphasis added)
A very interesting discussion in the article concerned seasonal businesses:
One area that conjures up questions about the meaning of “vacancy” stems from insureds with seasonal businesses. For instance, insureds with motels, restaurants, and shops along the Maine coastline may close their businesses during the off season. Contents, such as equipment, furniture, and other personal property can stay, but all perishables are removed. Properties are winterized by draining pipes and shutting off water and heat.
Carriers know these properties are seasonal and accept the risks. Therefore, in the event of a loss, would these property types be deemed vacant by the policy language on a commercial property policy?
The Insurance Services Office (ISO) CP 00 10, Building and Personal Property Coverage Form states that a building is vacant unless 31 percent of its square footage is used by the building owner to conduct customary operations. As the customary operations of seasonal businesses are to rent rooms and service customers, and those customary operations are not being performed in the months they are closed, the buildings would meet the definition of “vacant” set out in the policy, and those provisions would apply.
I had never thought about that coverage issue as it applies to seasonal businesses. I find unusual but very important topics are routinely discussed in the FC&S and that is why I find the product so important to adjusters and coverage counsel.