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Court affirms ruling for church in damaged ceiling case


A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court’s insurance coverage ruling in favor of a church whose ceiling collapsed, although for different reasons.

In April 2016, the ceiling in one section of the Easthampton Congregational Church in Easthampton, Massachusetts, collapsed, according to Friday’s ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston in Easthampton Congregational Church v. Church Mutual Insurance Co.

The church’s policy with Merrill, Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Co. had a $5.4 million limit.

A forensic engineer hired by the insurer found three layers of ceiling, and concluded the collapse was caused by the “progressive failure of the fasteners used to attach the layers of ceiling to the ceiling joists due to the weight of the ceiling.”

The insurer refused to provide coverage on the basis of a “faulty construction” exclusion in the policy, according to the ruling.

The church filed suit against the insurer in Massachusetts state court.  The litigation was later transferred to the U.S. District Court in Springfield, Massachusetts, which ruled in the church’s favor.

This was affirmed by a unanimous three-judge 1st Circuit panel in Friday’s ruling, although on somewhat different grounds.

The lower court ruling discusses the dictionary definition of “decay” in the policy and concludes the insurer was obligated to provide coverage under a policy provision.

The appeals court panel ruled in the church’s favor on the basis the word “decay” could “plausibly be read to mean either ‘progressive decline’ or ‘rot.’

“Accordingly, its meaning is ambiguous and that ambiguity must be resolved in the church’s favor,” said the panel’s ruling, in affirming the lower court’s ruling.

“We agree with the court’s analysis,” said the church’s attorney, William P. Rose, a partner with Melick & Porter LLP in South Hampton, Massachusetts.

Church Mutuals insurer had no immediate comment.



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