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State Farm Must Defend Cyberbully Accused of Instigating Suicide (PA)

December 14, 2018

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While attending a Pennsylvania High School, Zach Trimbur repeatedly harassed his female classmate, both in person and online.  In a tragic turn, the classmate committed suicide. The classmate’s parents filed a suit in Pennsylvania state court, bringing claims of negligence and wrongful death and survival against Trimbur.

State Farm brought a declaratory judgment action after Trimbur’s parents asked State Farm to defend and indemnify him against the lawsuit by referring to their home insurance policy that provided personal liability coverage. State Farm’s policy covers the cost of defending against claims arising from “occurrences,” which Pennsylvania state law has defined as accidents.

However, on December 11, 2018, U.S. District Judge Mark Kearney <a href="http://blog.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/State-Farm-v.-Motta-et-al..pdf">sided with the insured</a> and held that State Farm must pay for Trimbur’s defense. According to Judge Kearney, although Trimbur may have intended to hurt the girl, it is not conclusive that death by suicide was foreseeable from his cyberbullying. Judge Kearney further stated that “the true test of whether an accident occurred comes from when the situation is viewed from the perspective of the insured” and from Trimbur’s perspective, suicide was not foreseeable. Judge Kearney declined to answer whether State Farm must also indemnify Trimbur.  And with the duty to defend being broader than the duty to indemnify, indemnification is certainly on the table.  This question may remain unanswered until the close of discovery.  Thanks to Melisa Buchowiec for her contribution to this post.  Please email <a href="mailto:BGibbons@wcmlaw.com">Brian Gibbons</a> with any questions.

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