Homeowners Insurance Coverage For Wrongful Death Under California Law

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In a wrongful death action, the availability of insurance coverage under a homeowners policy is a critical but often complicated question.  Difficult coverage issues can arise where the death was the result of an intentional or criminal act, or the manner of death otherwise implicates a policy exclusion.

Generally speaking, where a death results from negligence there should be coverage under the liability portions of a homeowners insurance policy.  The California Supreme Court has held that “reasonable insureds expect their homeowners policy to protect them against liability for accidental injury or death occurring in their home.”  (Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Robert S. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 758, 851.)

Complications arise, however, because many events resulting in death have an element of intentional or even criminal conduct involved.  Homeowner liability policies frequently have an intentional acts exclusion, which precludes coverage for injuries that are “expected or intended” by the insured.  There are also exclusion for criminal acts, which are often combined with or part of the intentional acts exclusions. (20th Century Ins. Co. v. Stewart (1998) 63 Cal.App.4th 1333, 1336.)  In addition, California Insurance Code §533, precludes insurance coverage for losses that are “caused by the willful act of the insured.”

Often insureds who are not accused of intentional conduct are sued along with the insureds who committed the intentional act, frequently on a failure to supervise theory.  In Castro v. Allstate (S.D.Cal. 1994) 855 F.Supp 1152, a son committed a murder, his mother was sued for “negligence in supervising” the son, and a claim was made under a homeowners policy.  (Id. at 1152.)  These are sometimes referred to as mixed coverage cases, because they involve allegations of intentional conduct mixed with negligent conduct against different insureds.  Whether there is coverage for the so-called “innocent insureds” in these mixed actions often boils down to whether the exclusion’s language states it applies to “any” insured (collective exclusion), or “the” insured (individual exclusion).  (Id. at 1155.)

However, even where a policy uses the broader, collective language regarding application of an intentional acts exclusion, if the policy contains a “separate insurance” clause the exclusion still may only apply individually.  In Minkler v. Safeco Ins. Co. (2010) 49 Cal.4th 315, the California Supreme Court addressed an intentional acts exclusion in the context of child molestation, and a claim of negligent supervision against the mother of the accused molester.  Minkler held that even though the intentional act exclusion contained collective language excluding coverage for intentional conduct by “an” insured, because it also contained a clause stating that policy “applies separately to each insured,” it did not exclude coverage for the mother accused of negligence.

Another difficult area is if an automobile was involved in an accidental death and coverage is claimed under a homeowners insurance policy.  Under California’s concurrent causation doctrine, where an accident is caused by both covered and noncovered events, coverage usually exists.  (State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Partridge (1973) 10 Cal.3d 94, 102.)  However, recent precedent has narrowly interpreted that doctrine.  In Farmers Insurance Exchange v. Superior Court (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 1199, a child was struck and killed by a truck driven by the child’s grandfather in his home’s driveway.  The policy contained a motor vehicle exclusion.  The plaintiff, however, claimed the grandmother was negligent in supervising the children, and that such negligent supervision was covered despite the motor vehicle exclusion.  The California Court of Appeal found that the accident was “dependent” on use of the car, and therefore the motor vehicle exclusion was applicable.  (Id. at 1208-09.)

Wrongful death cases often involve mixed claims of intentional and negligent conduct.  Such cases raise important and complicated insurance coverage questions.  Persons faced with wrongful death claims under these circumstances should closely scrutinize potential theories and their impact on coverage, in order to maximize the odds of obtaining a recovery.