Homeowners Insurer has a Duty to Defend and Indemnify Man Who Plead Guilty to Voluntary Manslaughter

Date: April 19, 2007

According to a Delaware County Court of Common Pleas judge, a homeowner\’s insurance carrier acted in bad faith when it failed to defend and indemnify its insured against a wrongful death and survival action stemming from a shooting death in which the insured pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Over $2 million in compensatory damage was awarded to the estate of the deceased and $6 million in punitive damages was awarded to the insured plus court costs and attorney fees.

In Pennsylvania National Mutual Casualty Insurance Co. v. Johnson, Duane Johnson and Sami Toler were involved in an altercation in which Toler was shot and killed.   A court accepted Johnson\’s voluntary manslaughter plea and the estate of Toler filed a Wrongful Death and Survival complaint against Johnson alleging several reckless actions, one of which being Johnson did not intend to kill Toler.  When Johnson\’s homeowner\’s carrier Penn National was notified of the action, it denied the claim because the policy did not provide coverage for bodily injuries “expected or intended by the insured.”  This language is similar to standard exceptions found in most homeowner’s insurance policies which exclude coverage for intentional acts or harm caused by insureds. The insurer later filed a Declaratory Judgment action seeking a ruling that it never had a duty to defend or indemnify Johnson. The Court of Common Pleas denied the insurer\’s complaint, finding the actions of Penn National to be “at best offensive, but at worst repulsive” and levying the $6 million punitive award in hopes it would “register in [the insurer\’s] corporate conscience.”

This decision is in keeping with two recent decisions of the Pennsylvania Superior Court.  In Donegal v. Baumhammers (Pa.Super. Feb. 2006), a couple was sued for negligence after their mentally disturbed adult son murdered five (5) people and severely wounded another during a shooting spree in April 2000.  The couple\’s insurance company denied coverage under their homeowner\’s policy on the basis that the injuries and damages caused by the insured couple\’s son were intentional acts.  However, the Pennsylvania Superior Court determined that the couple\’s insurance company did have a duty to provide coverage because the couple\’s conduct in failing to properly secure the guns in the house fell within the definition of an “occurrence” under the policy for which coverage applied. Similarly, in QBE Insurance Corp. v. M & S Landis Corp. (Pa.Super. 2007), a bouncer at Fat Daddy\’s Nightclub smothered a man to death in the process of throwing the man out of the bar.  The man\’s family then sued the bar for wrongful death.  The bar\’s insurance company denied coverage based on an exclusion in the policy for intentional conduct in the nature of an “assault and battery”.  However, because the allegation against the bar was that it was negligent in the training and supervision of the bouncer, and this conduct would be considered an “accident”, such conduct qualified as an “occurrence” under the policy, thus triggering coverage.  The Court explained that although the most immediate cause of the man\’s death was the bouncer\’s intentional conduct, the bar\’s negligent conduct can also be considered a cause of the man\’s death.The lesson to be learned from the Johnson, Baumhammers and the M & S Landis Corp. cases is that just because the most immediate cause of injury or death may have been through an intentional act, there may still be insurance coverage available to pursue if there was a secondary cause of injury or death which facilitated the intentional conduct which could be characterized as negligent, reckless or accidental.  If you or loved one were injured due to the intentional or negligent conduct of another, we at DLP invite you to contact us for a free evaluation regarding whether you have a legitimate claim for damages.

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.