The Ninth Circuit federal court of appeals recently held that a person can commit an “intentional act” for insurance purposes even if he was criminally insane at the time of the act. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Griffin, No. 06-17323 (Sept. 4, 2008).

Melissa Moreland and her friend were sitting in a restaurant when they were attacked by Timothy Griffin. Griffin first attacked the friend, believing her to be “Lucifer,” then stabbed Moreland multiple times as Moreland attempted to help the friend. Griffin was found guilty, but was also found to have been insane at the time of the attack.

Moreland then commenced a civil suit against Griffin, who was insured under his parents’ homeowners policy. The insurer defended Griffin under a reservation of rights, and the parties settled the case. The insurer then sued for a declaratory judgment that the settlement was not covered by the policy because Griffin’s actions were excluded as criminal and/or intentional acts.

The federal district court held that Griffin’s actions were not criminal acts because, under California law, criminal defendants found to be insane are considered to not have committed a crime. However, after reviewing the expert testimony on Griffin’s state of mind, the court found that he had been deemed insane in his criminal trial solely on the ground that, although he was aware that his actions would result in bodily harm to Moreland (intent to injure), he was unable to “understand that his actions were not justified by his fear of Lucifer.” On that basis the court concluded that the insured’s actions were intentional, could not have been “accidental”, and were therefore not an “occurrence” under the homeowners policy. The district court also found that California Insurance Code § 533, which provides that an insurer is not liable for a loss caused by the willful act of an insured, applied and precluded coverage for the attack. For a copy of the district court decision, please click here.

Moreland appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that Griffin’s attack was not an intentional act because he was insane. The Ninth Circuit “acknowledge[d] the unfortunate nature of Griffin’s attack on Moreland,” but upheld the District Court’s determination that a finding of legal insanity under California law, without more, does not necessarily negate an individual’s ability to act intentionally for the purposes of insurance coverage. For a copy of the appellate court decision, please click here.