Home Owners Insurance May Provide Coverage for Criminal Acts of Insured

Date: November 9, 2007

In Brethren Mutual Insurance Company v. Cynthia McKernan, et al., the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled that an insurance company which provided home owner’s insurance to an insured was responsible to defend and provide coverage to a woman who fatally stabbed her boyfriend with respect to civil claims asserted by the boyfriend’s Estate against her. In addition, the Court held that the insurance company was responsible for satisfying a restitution award for funeral expenses ordered against the woman in the criminal proceedings against her arising out of the fatal stabbing.

Generally, intentional criminal acts will not be covered under a homerowner’s insurance policy. There is always an exclusion for such acts in homeowner’s insurance policies. However, in the McKernan case, the insured was not convicted of any intentional crimes as a result of the killing. Rather, she was convicted of reckless endangerment and simple assault by negligently causing bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon. The insured had grabbed a steak knife to defend herself from her abusive boyfriend. When she swung the knife intending to frighten her boyfriend away, she accidentally struck him in the chest and pierced his heart.

Because the insured’s actions were not intentional, the insured acknowledged that the insured’s conduct qualified as an occurrence under the policy language for which coverage was applicable. However, the the insurance company disputed whether it had an obligation to satisfy the restitution award of funeral expenses assessed against the insured by the judge in the criminal proceedings against her. The Court stated that the policy language did not limit claims to those made in the course of civil proceedings. The Court further held that a restitution award in a criminal proceeding qualifies as “damages” to which coverage is applicable under the policy.

As in any claim against an insurance company over coverage issues, the language of the policy will ultimately dictate the result. The Court’s decision in McKernan scrutinized the policy language in reaching its decision. McKernan is another decision from the Pennsylvania appellate courts in recent years which re-emphasizes a trend towards compelling insurance coverage for criminal conduct which results in serious injuries or death. The key component of these decisions is that coverage will only be found if the conduct was not intentional, although it can be criminal.

John P. Finnerty, Esquire

Joe Price
Attorney Joe Price is a seasoned Trial Lawyer serving Northeast, Central and Southeast Pennsylvania for the past forty (40) years. He has handled serious personal injury cases in courts throughout the Federal system including New Jersey and New York. Attorney Price is A.V. Rated by Martindale Hubble. He is Board Certified in Civil Practice by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1996.