The reason why the first Thanksgiving was so successful was because the people sitting around the table didn’t know each other well enough to dislike one another. At lots of tables in America on Thursday that won’t be the case. There will be plenty of “pass the stuffing” [thought bubble – you pompous know-it-all] and “ooh, delicious sweet potatoes” [thought bubble – you moron who couldn’t earn a living if you hadn’t married into your wife’s family business.] As the saying goes you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives. For many, what they give thanks for on Thanksgiving is that the holiday comes only once a year.
By its nature, insurance coverage often involves people that don’t get along. And sometimes those people are related. There is a significant amount of insurance coverage litigation involving family fights. And the disputes can arise under a host of policies. But since Coverage Opinions focuses on liability policies, the following are some examples of liability coverage cases involving people who will be having uncomfortable dinners on Thursday. These cases often involve the applicability of intentional acts or similar exclusions. There are so many more, but relatives that simply shoot or stab each other are not that exciting.
The idea for this column came from the first two paragraphs of the Georgia federal court’s November 8, 2013 decision in Nationwide v. O’Neill, 2013 U.S. Dist. Lexis 159927 [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]: “‘In-laws’ do not always get along, but acrimony rarely escalates to the point that a daughter-in-law sues her own father-in-law. Even rarer are cases in federal court arising from such disputes. But thanks to the possible existence of insurance coverage, this is one. ¶ After a night on the town, John Joseph O’Neill and his daughter-in-law, Jessica Marie O’Neill, got in an altercation in the front seat of Mr. O’Neill’s pick-up truck upon leaving a bar. Jessica sued her father-in-law in state court for personal injuries she allegedly suffered. In that action, Jessica alleges that Mr. O’Neill, while intoxicated, placed her in a headlock, hit her on the head, choked her, and shoved her out of his pick-up truck.” [Are you thinking what I’m thinking? How many father-in-laws and daughter-in-laws do you know who go out drinking together. What’s up with that?]
Preston v. State Farm, 517 So. 2d 1125 (La. Ct. App. 1988) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]: Ex-husband tries to break into his ex-wife’s home and encounters her brother. The two get into a struggle and ex-husband chops off his ex-brother-in-law’s hand with a machete. Well, we know which one will get the job of carving the turkey.
Remy v. Travelers, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81701 (N.D. Ill. June 11, 2013) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]: Mom out shopping and sisters arguing. Sixteen year old Francesca retaliates against thirteen year old sister, Gabriella, by pushing a lit piece of paper into a vent connecting their bedrooms. Get this -- the house caught fire and was extensively damaged. Francesca was charged with aggravated arson in a juvenile proceeding and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminal damage to property. [I’m thinking that no cell phone for a year was also part of the punishment.] Alabama Farm Bureau Mutual Casualty v. Dyer, 454 So. 2d 921 (Ala. 1984) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]: Brothers, while drinking vodka, got into a dispute about a prior sale between themselves of a $20 water ski. One brother pulled a .38 revolver out of his pocket, pointed it at his brother, fatally shot him and then fatally shot himself. A friend that witnessed the dispute did not intercede because there was nothing unusual about the brothers arguing or the one brother pointing a gun at the other.
Curtain v. Vanguard Ins. Co., 589 S.W.2d 61 (Mo. Ct. App. 1979) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]: Insured, in the dark, mistook his brother-in-law for an intruder outside his home and struck him with a crowbar – twice. The victim, after being knocked to the ground, called out “Charlie, this is Jim.”
If you are not looking forward to seeing some relatives on Thursday, just think how much worse it could be.
Coverage Opinions is a bi-weekly (or more frequently) electronic newsletter reporting or providing commentary on just-issued decisions from courts nationally addressing insurance coverage disputes. Coverage Opinions focuses on decisions that concern numerous issues under commercial general liability and professional liability insurance policies. For more information visit www.coverageopinions.info.
The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of his firm or its clients. The information contained herein shall not be considered legal advice. You are advised to consult with an attorney concerning how any of the issues addressed herein may apply to your own situation. Coverage Opinions is gluten free but may contain peanut products.
Randy J. Maniloff is an attorney in the Philadelphia office of White and Williams, LLP. He concentrates his practice in the representation of insurers in coverage disputes over primary and excess obligations under a host of policies. Randy is co-author of “General Liability Insurance Coverage - Key Issues In Every State” (Oxford University Press, 2nd Edition, 2012). For the past twelve years Randy has published a year-end article that addresses the ten most significant insurance coverage decisions of the year completed.
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