Spousal Abuse Can Never be an Accident

There is no Right to Beat Your Girlfriend and Get Defense from your Insurer

People are known to do stupid things. Insurance is designed to protect the insured against his or her negligence or stupid conduct. People who drink alcohol to excess and intentionally get drunk almost certainly do stupid things because of the intentional act of getting drunk. Insurance is, by definition, not available for intentional conduct that causes bodily injury to another.

In D.G. v. B.E.A. v. Harleysville Insurance Company Of New Jersey and Hanover Insurance Company, Docket No. A-3527-15T3, Superior Court Of New Jersey Appellate Division (March 29, 2018) Defendant/third-party plaintiff B.E.A. sought coverage and a defense under a homeowner’s policy issued by third-party defendant Harleysville Insurance Company (Harleysville) for a claim for bodily injuries inflicted on his girlfriend, plaintiff D.G., during a domestic violence incident. The trial court granted summary judgment to Harleysville.

FACTS

Plaintiff and defendant began dating in 2009. They had no history of domestic violence or physical abuse until the morning of July 11, 2013. The day before, they went to a casino/hotel in Atlantic City for the weekend to gamble. Defendant consumed alcohol during the day and into the next morning. He was extremely intoxicated when he returned to the parties’ hotel room at approximately 3:30 a.m. and viciously assaulted plaintiff. He threw her against a wall and choked and strangled her to the point she almost lost consciousness and thought she was going to die. He also threw her through a doorway, slammed her head into an air conditioning grate leaving a dent, blocked the door as she crawled away in an attempt to escape, and kneed and kicked her in the head and shoulders.

The police arrested defendant for “domestic assault” and issued a supplemental domestic violence offense report. Defendant was charged with simple assault, Plaintiff obtained an indefinite temporary restraining order against defendant after his repeated attempts to communicate with her after the assault.

Plaintiff sustained injuries to her head, neck, throat, left knee, legs, and arms. She has permanent injuries to her vocal cords and ankle, including an approximately two-inch scar on her ankle, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She filed a complaint against defendant in the Law Division, which defendant eventually settled for $250,000.

THE POLICY

Defendant sought coverage and a defense under his homeowner’s policy. The policy provided as follows:

The policy defined “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions, which results, during the policy period in: . . . ‘bodily injury[,]'” and defined “bodily injury” as “bodily harm, sickness or disease, including required care, loss of services and death that results.” The policy did not define the term “accident.” The policy excluded coverage for bodily injury “which is expected or intended by one or more ‘insureds’ even if the ‘bodily injury’ . . . (1) [i]s of a different kind, quality or degree than expected or intended; or (2) [i]s sustained by a different person or entity than expected or intended.”

CLAIM REJECTED

Harleysville disclaimed coverage and a defense, stating the assault was not accidental in nature and thus did not meet the definition of “occurrence” covered under the policy. Harleysville also disclaimed coverage based on the policy exclusion.

ANALYSIS

Defendant did not dispute he physically assaulted plaintiff or that this was an act of domestic violence. Rather, he claimed he was extremely intoxicated, had no recollection of what happened in the hotel room, and did not intentionally or knowingly cause plaintiff bodily harm.

Harleysville countered that defendant’s violent assault of plaintiff was not an accident under the policy, but rather, a particularly reprehensible act of domestic violence where intent to injure is presumed and insurance coverage is denied.

The motion judge agreed.  It held that when actions are particularly reprehensible, the intent to injure can be presumed from the act without an inquiry into the actor’s subjective intent to injure.

Grabbing a female by the neck and strangling that person and then smashing her head against an air conditioning unit would result, obviously, in nothing other than bodily injury.

Defendant claims he did not intentionally or knowingly injure plaintiff, and given his mental state – his intoxication – his actions were not expected or intended to cause plaintiff injury so as to apply the policy exclusion. He admits he assaulted plaintiff and this was an act of domestic violence.  The issue before the appellate court is whether defendant’s act of domestic violence was a particularly reprehensible act supporting a finding of presumed intent to injure plaintiff.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has applied an objective approach in the assault and battery context to determine the insured’s intent to injure. As a general rule, then, policy exclusions of the type at issue here represent enforceable limitations to an insurance contract when free of ambiguity. Courts ordinarily refrain from summary judgment unless the record undisputedly demonstrates that such injury was an inherently probable consequence of the insured’s conduct.

There are occasions where the objective conduct of the actor also determines the actor’s subjective intent to injure. Such is the case where the actor engages in assault and battery. The very nature of the conduct imputes the actor’s subjective intent to cause some injury to the victim. Where, as here, the plaintiff claims no more than the type of injuries that are inherently probable from such conduct there is no need to inquire into defendant’s subjective intent.

Allowing spouse abusers insurance coverage for their intentional abuse, whether it be physical or emotional, would contravene the public policy clearly enunciated by the New Jersey Supreme Court, and the intent of the Legislature in its enactment of the Prevention of Domestic Abuse Act. Clearly, coverage for spousal abuse, in any form, would encourage those who are disposed to commit such reprehensible acts to inflict injury upon their spouses with impunity, knowing that their insurance companies will indemnify them for the money damages recovered by their spouses if only they can convince some jury that they did not intend or expect bodily harm to flow from their conduct.

Spousal abuse in any form is so inherently injurious. That it can never be an accident, and therefore, as a matter of public policy and logic to the end that the intent to injure is presumed from the performance of the act. In a civilized society,  the New Jersey court concluded “wife-beating is, self-evidently, neither a marital privilege nor an act of simple domestic negligence.” Neither is any other intentional tort by which one spouse victimizes the other. Insurance coverage for such torts are not available as a matter of public policy.

Although there was only one incident of domestic violence here, it was sufficiently egregious to warrant the denial of coverage. Defendant brutally assaulted plaintiff, causing her significant and permanent injuries. Defendant’s conduct was so egregious as to be “particularly reprehensible,” warranting a presumption of intent to injure plaintiff and denial of coverage under the policy exclusion.

Defendant’s voluntary intoxication is no defense. Where domestic violence is involved, there is no exception. He intended to get drunk. He admitted his drunkenness was the reason for the violence. the claim of no intent to do harm failed.

Regardless of how a claim is framed, if the operative facts constitute an assault and battery, the exclusion applies, and the insurer has no duty to defend.

ZALMA OPINION

The result in this case was obvious. What surprised me was the unmitigated gall on the part of the batterer to sue the insurer and take such an obvious case up on appeal. I was also surprised that the court took the case seriously enough to render a lengthy and detailed analysis of the issues. The decision could have easily been reduced to a single sentence: “the act of domestic violence was so egregious as to warrant the denial of coverage because it was intentional.”


© 2018 – Barry Zalma

This article, and all of the blog posts on this site, digest and summarize cases published by courts of the various states and the United States.  The court decisions have been modified from the actual language of the court decisions, were condensed for ease of reading, and convey the opinions of the author regarding each case.

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant  specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 50 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and zalma@zalma.com.

Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of the first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.

Mr. Zalma’s books available as Kindle books or paperbacks at Amazon.com can be reached at http://zalma.com/zalma-books/

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The author and publisher disclaim any liability, loss, or risk incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents of this blog. The information provided is not a substitute for the advice of a competent insurance, legal, or other professional. The Information provided at this site should not be relied on as legal advice. Legal advice cannot be given without full consideration of all relevant information relating to an individual situation.

 

 

 

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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