May 29, 2020

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Finds Insurer Must Defend Against Allegations of ‘Accidental’ Altercation During Murder-Suicide

In an exception to the COVID-19-related news that has dominated recent headlines, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of an insured contending that its insurance carrier must provide defense and potential indemnification against claims of a man who was shot while intervening in a murder-suicide. The underlying case, Erie Insurance Exchange v. Moore, was filed in Washington County. The insurer sought a declaration that it owed no duty to defend or indemnify the estate of Harold McCutcheon. McCutcheon, the homeowner insured, shot his ex-wife, her boyfriend, and himself in September of 2013, killing himself and his former spouse during an altercation at her home. The boyfriend, Richard Carly, then filed a complaint against the insured’s estate, alleging that the insured had shot the boyfriend accidentally while they were struggling over control of the weapon in the ex-wife’s home. The insured’s estate sought defense and indemnity under the insured’s homeowners insurance policy.

The homeowners policy defined a covered occurrence as “an accident including continuous or repeated exposure to the same general harmful conditions.” The trial court initially ruled in favor of the insurer, finding that the shooting did not fit the definition of accidental and therefore the shooting could not be covered under the policy and the insurer owed no duty to defend the estate against the boyfriend’s claims.

However, the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision in November 2017, holding that the facts alleged in the boyfriend’s complaint would fit the definition of an accident laid out in the policy, and therefore coverage was not clearly precluded and the insurer did owe the insured’s estate a duty of defense. The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision 4-3.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Dougherty, found the insurer’s argument that the shooting was intentional and therefore could not be an accident to be disingenuous, noting that such a shooting is distinguishable from damages incurred through a fistfight. Along those lines, the court noted that the insured intended to kill his ex-wife and himself, but did not expect the boyfriend to arrive at the house and interrupt the attack. The policy’s exclusion for bodily injury “expected or intended” by the insured is sufficiently ambiguous, according to the opinion, to be construed in favor of the insured.

The case was heavily briefed by a number of amici curiae, who argued that finding a duty to defend in this instance would encourage criminal behavior. The court specifically rejected this argument as “beside the point,” because the boyfriend’s complaint alleges that the shooting was an accident. This allegation, if proven, could trigger coverage and therefore the insurer owed a duty to defend the insured’s estate against the claims of the boyfriend.

The dissent, written by Justice Mundy, disagreed with the majority and argued that this type of harm is exactly that which should be excluded under homeowners policies, stating that “artful pleadings cannot form the basis of imposing a duty to defend.” Although only time can ultimately reveal the full implications of this decision, the Court may have opened the door to similar claims under other homeowners policies with similar language.

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