Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Court Finds that Homeowner's Carrier Required to Defend Insureds Against Claims that Insured Caused Another's Suicide by Cyber-Bullying

In what may be a case of first impression, in State Farm Fire and Cas. Co. v. Motta, No. 18-3956 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 11, 2018 Kearney, J.), Judge Mark A. Kearney of the Federal Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania held that a homeowner’s policy was required to defend a case on behalf of a Defendant-homeowner whose son allegedly bullied another high school student with text messages, allegedly causing that other student to commit suicide as a result.  

After the parents of the deceased student sued the harasser and his parents for negligence, the defendants turned to their carrier for liability coverage under their homeowner's policy.  The policy provided coverage for any "occurrence" which was defined in the policy as an "accident."

In this declaratory judgment action on coverage, the carrier argued that, because the harasser sent a text message to the victim, there was no "accident" as to his actions.

In response, the insured defendants argued that Pennsylvania law requires, in the analysis of whether an "accident" occurred in the context of the policy, that the question of foreseeability be viewed from the insured's perspective.  In this regard, the insured defendants asserted that, although it cannot be disputed that the insured sent the text message, the victim's suicide thereafter constituted an extraordinary intervening event far beyond anything contemplated under the circumstances and was therefore unforeseeable to the insured and, in the end, fell within the definition of an "accident."

The court noted that "[t]he parties have not cited, and we cannot find, Pennsylvania law addressing whether the [insured'] alleged negligence possibly leading to this ever more prevalent tragedy among our students is an occurrence mandating coverage."

Ultimately, after analyzing the facts before it, the court held that the homeowner's insurance carrier was indeed required to provide a defense and possible indemnity on negligence claims presented in this unfortunate case.

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.  The Court's companion Order can be viewed HERE.

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