A California Court of Appeal recently held that “deliberate acts of self-defense” can be “accidents” for purposes of determining an insurer’s duty to defend under a liability insurance policy. Jafari v. EMC Ins. Companies, No. B192640, 2007 WL 2782365 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. Sept. 26, 2007).

The plaintiff/insured was the owner of an automotive repair shop. When a customer arrived at the shop to pick up his vehicle, the customer and the store manager became involved in an altercation. According to the store manager, the customer threatened to kill the manager, at which time the manager punched the customer twice in the face because he was in fear for his personal safety and his life.

The customer sued the insured storeowner for, among other things, assault and battery. The insured tendered defense and indemnification of the action to his insurer. The insurer rejected the tender on the basis that the lawsuit was the result of the manager’s intentional acts, and intentional acts are not “accidents” and thus do not fall within the coverage for “accidents.”

The insured then filed a coverage action against his insurer. The insurer was granted summary judgment on the basis that the injuries alleged in the underlying action were not the result of an “accident.”

The appeals court reversed summary judgment on the basis that precedent does not foreclose the possibility that acts in self-defense can be “accidents.” According to the court, acts in self-defense can be an “accident” “where the third party’s actions provoking the self-defense response were the unforeseen and unexpected element in the causal chain of events making the insured’s acts in self-defense unplanned and involuntary” (Emphasis in original.) The court went on to hold that “even deliberate acts of self-defense in response to unexpected, unforeseen and unintended events by the third party are ‘accidents’ and give rise to the potential for liability under the policy, and hence the obligation to provide a defense.” Because the insured satisfied his initial burden of showing the potential for coverage based on the customer’s verbal assault and threat and the manager’s acts of self-defense in response, summary judgment was improper. A full copy of the Jafari opinion can be found here.