An Illinois appeals panel has sided with a Chicago building owner against an insurance company, in a dispute over who should pay for a 2010 porch collapse at a Lakeview apartment building – an event the insurer had tried to avoid covering by arguing, in part, the porch was a “deck” and was not actually a part of the insured building.

On Sept. 12, 2010, a multi-story porch attached to the building in the 3700 block of N. Ashland Ave. collapsed, injuring four people. The second and third floors of the porch broke away, with a large number of people on the second floor at the time. The porches were attached to the building and each other by either stairs or support posts; there was no roof.

The building’s insurer, Erie Insurance, refused to pay for the porch, saying the collapse was the result of faulty construction, and loss from faulty construction was not covered. Building owner Jean Lee countered faulty workmanship may have been a factor, but the weight of the people on the second floor also contributed to the collapse. Erie replied the load on the floor did not exceed the code-specified load.

However, Erie also attempted to dodge paying for the damage by arguing its policy only insured against the collapse of a building or part of a building, and the porch, or “deck,” as Erie referred to it, did not qualify as either. Erie said it believed the collapse would have been covered if the building collapsed and took the porch with it. But since the porch collapsed alone, the loss did not qualify for coverage under the terms of the policy, the insurer said.

Lee sued Erie in September 2011 and, following a bench trial in May 2013, Cook County Circuit Judge Margaret A. Brennan ruled in favor of Lee. Erie then appealed to the Illinois First District Appellate Court, restating arguments they had made to Brennan.

In an unpublished order issued June 26, appellate justices addressed the issue of definition, as Erie refrained from using the word “porch,” instead using “deck” as a way to try to drive home their point the structure was not part of the apartment building. The justices noted the second-floor apartment’s doors opened onto the deck of the porch, and without the deck-porch, tenants would “fall some distance to the ground,” qualifying the structure – whether a porch or a deck – as a part of the building as defined by the insurance policy.

Moreover, justices pointed out Erie’s own insurance adjuster testified he considered the structure part of the building, rendering the porch-deck issue moot.

The justices upheld Brennan’s judgment against Erie.

Justices also said a trial court should take another look at damages awarded to Lee, finding she should be owed replacement costs for the deck, which she estimated at $46,000, rather than the $25,000 she had been awarded by Brennan.

Lee had also sought an additional $17,000 she said she spent to build a simple replacement porch to satisfy the demands of a “building court,” which Lee said had ordered her to also remove the wreckage of the collapsed porch and which Lee said had fined her $2,000 a day until she complied.

Justice Jesse Reyes delivered the judgment, with justices Stuart Palmer and Robert Gordon concurring.

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