The Third Circuit recently held that an insured who, while intoxicated, allegedly attempted to shoot another person was not covered under his homeowner’s insurance policies for the resulting liability, as the attempted shooting could not constitute an “accident.” State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Mehlman, Nos. 08-220, 08-2261, 08-2262 (Dec. 16, 2009).
After several drinks, and with a blood alcohol level of 0.21 percent, the insured allegedly chased a woman and repeatedly attempted to shoot her, but the gun malfunctioned on each attempt. The insured later took his own life. The alleged target of the attempted shootings then sued the insured’s estate for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, assault with a firearm, and negligence. State Farm, which had issued a homeowner’s policy and umbrella policy to the alleged gunman, sued both plaintiff and defendants for a declaratory judgment that there was no coverage. The policies provided coverage for an “occurrence” and a “loss,” respectively, both of which were defined as an “accident.”
The issue on appeal to the Third Circuit was whether the insured’s intoxication rendered the alleged shooting attempts “accidental.” The District Court had held that issues of fact remained with regard to coverage under the umbrella policy. The Third Circuit disagreed and granted summary judgment to the insurer as to both policies. The court observed that “alcoholic beverages certainly can contribute to the loosening of a person’s inhibitions without eliminating his ability to intend to engage in harmful conduct.” Accordingly, the court held where “the injured party does not make allegations indicating that an insured’s intoxication prevented him from intending the consequences of his violent behavior,” Pennsylvania law “does not permit an insured … to shift responsibility for the damages resulting from his behavior to his insurer.” In other words, “Pennsylvania courts will not lightly allow an insured to avoid the financial repercussions of an act of violence by drinking himself into insurance coverage.”
The court also rejected the insured’s contention that the claims for “negligence” triggered a duty to defend. The court cited Pennsylvania law that “the particular cause of action that a complainant pleads is not determinative” of whether coverage exists; rather, courts must “look at the factual allegations.” The court therefore held that the insured in this cause “cannot square the circle” by arguing that he “breached the duty of care he owed” the victim “when he attempted to shoot and kill her.” He did breach a duty, observed the court, “but the duty he breached was not a duty of reasonable care, it was a duty not to harm her intentionally.”