Court: Assault and Battery in Self-Defense Not An Insurance ‘Accident’

August 5, 2009

Does a liability insurer have a duty to defend its insured if the insured deliberately commits assault and battery in self-defense? According to the Supreme Court of California, the answer is no, because the act of having to defend oneself does not fall within the policy’s coverage of an “accident.”

According to court documents in Jonathan Delgado v. Interinsurance Exchange of the Automobile Club of Southern California (ACSC), Delgado was injured on Nov. 7, 2003 by Craig Reid, who had a homeowners insurance policy providing liability coverage for up to $100,000. In March 24, Delgado sued Reid, saying Reid struck, battered and kicked him unprovoked. The second cause of action alleged that Reid “negligently and unreasonably believed” he was engaging in self-defense when he injured Delgado. As a result, Reid turned to ACSC to provide defense in Delgado’s lawsuit.

ACSC said defense was not covered, because the assault was not an “occurrence,” which was defined in the policy as an “accident.” The insurer said Reid’s actions were intentional, which fell under a policy exclusion.

In January 2005, Delgado requested the intentional tort claim be dismissed, and he and Reid settled, with Reid agreeing to pay Delgado $25,000. Reid stipulated that his action occurred because he “negligently believed he was acting in self-defense,” court documents state.

Delgado then sued ACSC, alleging that Reid “acted ‘without intent to injure’ Delgado, ‘but with intent to defend himself and his family … from what [Reid] perceived was an imminent threat of harm.” Delgado said that because Reid’s action was in response to what he perceived was an imminent threat of harm and not an overreaction, and not willful or malicious, it was an accident, within the meaning of Reid’s insurance policy.

The trial court said that there were no facts to support Delgado’s claim that Reid believed he was acting in self-defense, so it was “disingenuous at best” to characterize Reid’s assault and battery as an “accident.”

The Court of Appeal reversed the lower court decision, saying that “allegations of harmful acts done with an unreasonable believe in self-defense describe conduct that is “properly characterized as nonintentional tortuous conduct,” and therefore potentially an accident covered by the insurance policy.

However, the state high court disagreed, saying, “[the] insured Reid’s assault and battery on Delgado were acts done with the intent to cause injury; there is no allegation in the complaint that the acts themselves were merely shielding or the result of a reflex action. Therefore, the injuries were not as a matter of law accidental, and consequently there is no potential for coverage under the policy.”

The court added, “Delgado’s argument that the insured’s assault was an accidental act because a provocative act by the injured party was unforeseen and unexpected would also be inconsistent with California case law. … We conclude here that an insured’s unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense does not turn the resulting purposeful and intentional act of assault and battery into ‘an accident’ within the policy’s coverage clause.”

The Supreme Court ruled ACSC had no duty to defend its insured in the lawsuit brought against him by the injured party, and reversed the Court of Appeal’s judgmen

Source: California Courts

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