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PA Supreme Court Finds Duty to Defend “Accidental” Shooting During Otherwise Intentional Acts

On April 22, 2020, in a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that an insurer had a duty to defend a Lawsuit that was filed by a man who, although not the intended victim of a murder-suicide, was nevertheless shot and injured during a contemporaneous altercation with the insured perpetrator. Erie Insurance Exchange v. Tracy L. Moore, et al., 2020 WL 1932642 (Pa. Apr. 22, 2020).

The Complaint filed in the Lawsuit alleged that the insured broke into the home of his ex-wife with the intent to (i) shoot and kill her, and (ii) kill himself. After the insured killed his ex-wife, but before he killed himself, the ex-wife’s boyfriend arrived at the home and attempted to gain entry. An altercation ensued when the insured grabbed the boyfriend by his shirt and pulled him into the home. “During this ‘struggle’ between the two men, [the insured] was ‘knocking things around, and in the process [he] negligently, carelessly, and recklessly caused the weapon to be fired which struck [the boyfriend] in the face.’”

The insured’s estate sought coverage for the Lawsuit under both a homeowner’s and a personal catastrophe policy. Both policies contained “accident”-based definitions of “occurrence.” And, both policies excluded coverage for “expected or intended injury.” Under the homeowner’s policy, coverage was excluded even if “the degree, kind or quality of the injury or damage is different than what was expected or intended,” or “a different person, entity, real or personal property sustained the injury or damage than was expected or intended.”  Coverage was denied based on the lack of an “occurrence,” and the expected or intended injury exclusions.

The trial court entered summary judgment for the insurer, finding no duty to defend the Lawsuit. The Superior Court reversed, reasoning that, while gunshot wounds are commonly inflicted deliberately, “not all injuries from gun violence are intentional.”  The Superior Court recognized that “legal terminology” of negligence and carelessness “cannot control the outcome,” but nevertheless determined that the allegations “fairly portray a situation in which injury may have been inflicted unintentionally.”

The Supreme Court narrowly upheld the Superior Court’s ruling. The Court reasoned that “the ‘four corners of the complaint’ – when taken as true and liberally construed – make out an accidental shooting.” Distinguishing existing case law concerning intentional acts and the expected or intended consequences of the same, the court viewed the allegations concerning the incident and intent as more than mere “artful” pleading designed to present intentional acts as accidental for purposes of insurance coverage.  The Court believed that the allegations were not clear with respect to the insured’s intent as it related to the boyfriend.  As such, there was a factual scenario that potentially constituted an “occurrence,” to which the exclusions for “expected or intended” injury would not apply, and, therefore, was not patently outside the policy coverage.  In particular, the Court concluded that the Complaint left open the possibility that the insured intended to kill his wife and himself, but that the “surprise encounter” with the boyfriend and subsequent “accidental” shooting were not part of that plan. The Court appeared to find it meaningful that the Complaint did not seek recovery for a fistfight or shoving match, only damages for being shot.

As such, the Court found that there was a duty to defend the Lawsuit.  The Court also commented that “[d]enying a duty to defend under [the] circumstances would not serve as a crime deterrent, and would unnecessarily withhold compensation to tort victims.”