Until recently, Washington law on what constitutes “collapse” in a first-party property insurance policy has been unsettled. But that issue has now been resolved with the Washington Supreme Court’s answer to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified question on the definition of “collapse” as “substantial impairment of structural integrity.”

The Queen Anne Park Condominium in Seattle, Washington, was originally constructed in the 1980’s. In 2009, the Queen Anne Park Homeowners Association (“HOA”) discovered that the siding on the buildings was leaking, which caused hidden decay. The building was insured by State Farm Fire and Casualty Company (“State Farm”) from October 18, 1992 to October 18, 1998 (“Policy”). The Policy included a collapse coverage form, which provided coverage for “any accidental direct physical loss to covered property involving collapse of a building or any part of a building caused only by one or more of the following: …(2) hidden decay.” The collapse coverage form further stated that “[c]ollapse does not include settling, cracking, shrinking, bulging or expansion.” The term “collapse” was not defined in the State Farm Policy.

The Washington Supreme Court held that the undefined term “collapse” is ambiguous because it is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. In support of its holding, the Court noted that in Sprague v. Safeco Ins. Co. of America, 174 Wn.2d 524, 276 P.3d 1270 (2012), different definitions of “collapse” were proposed by the dissent (“to break down completely: fall apart in confused disorganization: crumble into insignificance or nothingness…fall into a jumbled or flattened mass”) and by the concurrence (“a breakdown of vital energy, strength, or stamina”). The Court also noted that courts throughout the country have adopted different but reasonable definitions of “collapse” in insurance policies, i.e. Olmstead v. Lumbermens Mut. Ins. Co., 22 Ohio St. 2d 212,259 N.E.2d 123, 126 (1970) (“collapse” defined as “a falling down, falling together, or caving into an unorganized mass”); Am. Concept Ins. Co. v. Jones, 935 F. Supp. 1220, 1227 (D. Utah 1996) (collapse” defined as substantial impairment of structural integrity); Buczek v. Cont’l Cas. Ins. Co., 378 F.3d 284, 290 (3d Cir. 2004) (“collapse” defined as substantial impairment of structural integrity that “’connotes imminent collapse threatening the preservation of the building as a structure or…health and safety”). In particular, the Court observed that in at least one other case, State Farm had agreed with the insured that the term “collapse” meant “substantial impairment of structural integrity.” Mercer Place Condominium Assoc. v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 104 Wn. App. 597, 17 P.3d 626 (2000).

Because the term “collapse” was ambiguous, the Court adopted a definition that is reasonable and most favorable to the insured, i.e. “substantial impairment of structural integrity.” The Court explained that the “structural integrity” of a building means a building’s ability to remain upright and that “substantial impairment” means a severe impairment. The Court stated that, “[t]aken together, ‘substantial impairment’ of ‘structural integrity’ means an impairment so severe as to materially impair a building’s ability to remain upright. Considering the Policy as a whole, we conclude that ‘substantial impairment of structural integrity’ means the substantial impairment of the structural integrity of all or part of a building that renders all or part of the building unfit for its function or unsafe and, in this case, means more than mere settling, cracking, shrinkage, bulging, or expansion.”

Because the newer collapse coverage forms usually define the term “collapse” as an actual falling down or caving in of a building or any part of a building, the Washington Supreme Court’s clarification on the definition of “collapse” will not be an issue. However, when the term “collapse” is undefined, the parties will likely engage in an expensive and prolonged battle of the experts as to what constitutes a building or part of a building to be “unfit for its function or unsafe,” and when such condition occurred.