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...