Metro Prop. & Cas. Inc. Co. v. Estate of Benson – Compensation for Fatal Criminal Attack

When serious or fatal injuries are caused by another person’s negligence, the victim and/or surviving family have a right to pursue compensation for their losses. However, when the injuries sustained are the result of an intentional act, collecting becomes a more complicated matter. The reason is that while victims are still entitled to damages insurance companies often have policy exclusions for intentional criminal acts resulting in injury or death. That often leaves a plaintiff’s only recourse collection directly from the wrongdoer.

In many instances, that individual lacks the resources and assets to adequately compensate the victim(s). That doesn’t necessarily mean it is not worth it to pursue such a case, but the viability must be carefully weighed.

Recently, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court considered a lawsuit against a homeowners’ insurance company brought by the family of a man killed by another on property belonging to attacker’s grandmother. In Metro Prop. & Cas. Inc. Co. v. Estate of Benson, the court was asked to consider whether insurer could be liable for wrongful death despite its intentional tort exclusion in the policy.

According to court records, an altercation arose between victim and assailant when assailant, backed by a group of male friends, made sexually offensive comments toward victim’s female companion. The woman stepped behind the 24-year-old victim for protection and the victim told the assailant to back off. The assailant instead punched the victim with a single blow to the head. Victim fell backward, struck his head on the concrete ground and died.

Assailant, age 20 at the time of the attack, later pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and ultimately served two years of a 10-year prison sentence.

Decedent’s estate sued the attacker alleging tortious assault and battery. In exchange for an agreement that estate would not seek execution of the judgment against attacker personally, he admitted his negligence had caused decedent’s death. A judgment was entered in favor of the estate for $400,000. Attacker then signed away all rights he might have against his grandmother’s homeowners’ insurance policy to the plaintiffs.

Subsequently, plaintiffs filed a “reach-and-apply” action against the insurance company. Insurer sought a declaratory judgment as to its obligation to indemnify attacker, and later filed a request for summary judgment on grounds:

  • Attacker was not covered under his grandmother’s insurance policy, even though he lived with her;
  • Even if attacker was insured by the policy, the claim was precluded by the intentional loss exclusion.

Trial court granted this motion for summary judgment, finding the company had no contractual obligation to indemnify the attacker for his actions because the policy’s intentional loss exclusion barred coverage.

Plaintiffs appealed, arguing this was not an intentional loss because the attacker hadn’t meant to kill decedent. He didn’t expect that a single punch would cause wrongful death. However, the plain language of the policy holds that the exclusion covered all intentional acts – even if the exact outcome that occurred wasn’t the original intention. Other similar cases have been decided in plaintiff’s favor where policy language indicated exclusion from harm that was “expected or intended.” In this case, the policy contained that language – but with the additional caveat that exclusions would be extended to actions that are “intentional and criminal.”

Based on that, it doesn’t matter that the outcome of intentional harm was more severe than intended or expected. What matters is that the conduct was both intentional and criminal.

If you are a loved one has been injured, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Metro Prop. & Cas. Inc. Co. v. Estate of Benson,  Dec. 1, 2015, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

More Blog Entries:

Angelo v. Campus Crest at Orono LLC – Police Officer Sues for Dangerous Condition on Property, Dec. 10, 2015, Portland Wrongful Death Attorney Blog

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