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PA Supreme Court Finds Shooting of Third-Party During Murder-Suicide is an "Occurrence"

May 29, 2020

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<p style="text-align: justify;">The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently opined that the duty to defend extended to claims arising from injuries sustained when the insured shot a victim in the face. In <em><a href="">Erie Insurance Exchange v. Moore, et al.</a>,</em> No 20 WAP 2018, 2020 WL 193242 (Pa. April 22, 2020), the insured broke into his ex-wife’s home intending to murder her and then commit suicide. The ex-wife's boyfriend arrived on the scene, a struggle ensured, and the boyfriend was shot in the face. The boyfriend filed suit against the insured’s estate and the estate sought coverage under two separate policies issued by Erie: (1) a homeowner’s policy; and (2) a Personal Catastrophe Liability Policy.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Erie filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration regarding its duty to defend an insured for injuries allegedly sustained in a shooting. Erie argued it was entitled to summary judgment for two reasons: (1) the injuries did not arise from an occurrence as defined in the respective policies; and (2) even if there was an occurrence, the policies expressly excluded coverage for personal injury expected or intended by the insured. The estate filed a cross motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted Erie’s motion holding that the “prospect of an injury from a gun firing during a physical struggle over that gun was no less plainly and reasonably anticipated.” The court reasoned that the shooting cannot fall within the definition of an accident given the deliberate conduct of the insured.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The Superior Court reversed on appeal. In considering whether the shooting constituted an occurrence under the policies, the court reasoned that “gunshot wounds commonly are inflicted deliberately, but not all injuries from gun violence are intentional.” Ultimately the panel concluded the complaint pleads an occurrence because the allegations “fairly portray a situation in which injury may have been inflicted unintentionally.”</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">On appeal, the majority concluded that the specific facts plead in the complaint established only that the insured intended to kill his ex-wife and himself, and to pull the victim into the house and fight while wielding a firearm. Despite finding the insured’s decision to pull the victim into the home and engage in a fight was intentional, the majority found that the discharge of the weapon in said circumstances was both unintentional and accidental. The majority suggested a different result if the policies at issue contained exclusions expressly excluding coverage for “incidents involving firearms, or during the commission of a crime.” Since the policies contain no such language, the majority reasoned, the complaint must be construed in favor of coverage because the factual allegations presented create an ambiguity as to whether the injuries were expected or intended.</p>
Thanks to Jennifer Seme for her contribution to this post. Please email <a href="">Heather Aquino</a> with any questions.


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