In the March 29, 2017 case, Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Company v. Ryan Casey et al., the Appeals Court affirmed a Superior Court decision holding that a claimant could not recover under a homeowners’ insurance policy for an assault and battery committed by an insured.
In most cases, Massachusetts courts have held that whether injuries are expected or intended from the viewpoint of the insured is a question of fact. As a result, insurance companies often have to defend the insured and, in some cases after trial, indemnify the insured to compensate the victim of the assault.
Liberty Mutual wins in Superior Court, but victim and insured-perpetrator appeal
The circumstances of this case were clear-cut. Mr. Casey, after consuming alcohol and marijuana, attacked an associate, Evan Williams, twice in the same evening and without prior warning. Mr. Casey both punched and kicked Mr. Williams in the face multiple times causing serious bodily injury.
Mr. Williams made a claim under the Casey family’s homeowners insurance policy seeking damages and medical expenses. In response, Liberty Mutual responded by filing a declaratory judgment seeking a declaration in the Superior Court that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Mr. Casey or to pay medical expenses for Mr. Williams.
Liberty Mutual based its declaratory judgment suit on the exclusion in the Casey policy that barred coverage for personal liability and for medical expenses because the policy’s coverages, “do not apply to ‘bodily injury’ [w]hich is expected or intended by the ‘insured’, even if the resulting ‘bodily injury’ is of a different kind, quality, or degree than initially expected or intended.”
In the Superior Court, both Mr. Williams and Mr. Casey argued there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding Mr. Casey’s lack of intent to injure based upon his marijuana and alcohol use.
The Superior Court hearing the cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Liberty Mutual and Mr. Casey and Mr. Williams ruled that there were no material facts in dispute and that the intent to injure exclusion barred any policy coverage for Mr. Casey or Mr. Williams.
Mr. Casey and Mr. Williams appeal to the Appeals Court
On appeal, the Appeals Court agreed that in the ordinary case, the “expected or intended” exclusion language of the Liberty Mutual policy did not allow for summary judgment. The question of whether an assault and battery occurred with actual intent to injure requires a trial because where “motive, intent, or other state of mind questions are at issue summary judgment is inappropriate.”
The Appeals Court agreed that both Mr. Casey and Williams had potential rights to coverage under Liberty Mutual’s policy.
As an insured under the policy, Liberty Mutual potentially owed Mr. Casey defense and “personal liability” indemnity where “…a claim is made, or a suit is brought against [him] for damage because of bodily injury caused by an ‘occurrence’ to which [the coverage] applies.” Mr. Williams, in turn, had a potential right to “medical payments to others” as well as potential indemnity payments from Mr. Casey’s personal liability coverage if the policy applied to Mr. Casey’s actions.
Per the Appeals Court, for Liberty Mutual to avoid a reversal and a jury trial, it had to prove there was no material dispute that the insured, “intended, or knew with substantial certainty, that some injury would result from his conduct…”
When you hit somebody with a fist… You know you are going to do some level of injury
The Appeals Court noted that not every assault and battery needs an inference of intent to injure for purposes of this exclusion. Under Massachusetts law, “one is considered to intended the natural and ordinary consequences of one’s voluntary act.” However, in applying this exclusion to a homeowners policy’s personal liability coverage, the court stated the standard, “Has a much more narrow gauge that recognizes the correlation [between act and intent] only where reason mandates that from the very nature of the act, harm to the injured party must have been intended.”
The Appeals Court remarked that “Liberty Mutual’s burden is not insubstantial” because “intent to injure has been inferred as a matter of law in only a few cases involving expected and intended exclusionary clauses.” But, the Appeals Court went on to state “that is not to say, however, that, in such cases, summary judgment is always inappropriate.”
Adverse facts make Liberty Mutual’s burden less heavy
Whatever difficulties Liberty Mutual had in sustaining its favorable ruling from the Superior Court, Mr. Casey and Mr. Williams had an equally difficult burden in proving a question of fact existed as to Mr. Casey’s lack of intent to injure.
In June 2013, Mr. Casey, then seventeen years old, attended the St. Peter’s fiesta celebration in Gloucester with two friends, Prior to arriving, Mr. Casey had consumed alcohol and smoked marijuana. At some point, Mr. Casey met an acquaintance, Evan Williams, also seventeen years old, the two left on foot with two others to go smoke marijuana. After the group arrived at a remote location nearby, Mr. Casey “sucker punched” Mr. Williams in the face with a closed fist. He then punched Mr. Williams in the face several more times, kicked him in the face once, and left leaving Mr. Williams seriously injured on the ground.
Eventually, Mr. Williams got to his feet and again approached Mr. Casey and the two others. As Mr. Williams spoke with them, Mr. Casey separated from the group, came up behind Mr. Williams, and again “sucker punched” him in the face for a second time with a closed fist, causing additional serious bodily injuries. Mr. Casey and the two others then left for a second time.
Mr. Williams tried to walk home, but gave up and telephoned his mother, who came and took him to a local hospital. Due to the severity of his injuries, the local hospital transferred Mr. Williams to a Boston hospital, where he underwent surgery.
Subsequently, Mr. Casey was indicted for the attacks and pleaded guilty to assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon (shod foot) and assault and battery causing serious bodily harm. He was sentenced for the first offense to two and one-half years in a house of correction, with two years to be served and the balance suspended while he served a three-year period of probation for the second offense.
Mr. Casey’s explanation when queried about the reason behind his actions in attacking Mr. Williams was that he had lent Mr. Williams money to buy marijuana one year earlier, and Mr. Williams had not fully repaid him. In Mr. Casey’s view, Mr. Williams had “robbed” him, and that thought came back to him when he saw Mr. Williams at the fiesta, causing him to become “pretty heated.”
Appeals Court finds intoxication and marijuana use did not negate intent to injure
Mr. Casey estimated that he had smoked marijuana multiple times and had drunk more than five or six alcoholic beverages before he attacked Mr. William.
Mr. Casey and Mr. Williams argued that this use of marijuana and alcohol presented a question of fact that prohibited the Appeals Court from finding that the exclusion for intent to injure applied as a matter of law.
The Court agreed that evidence of voluntary intoxication was relevant to deciding the presence or absence of intent. However, that level of intoxication must be high enough that that there is a question of fact as to whether the person “did not know with substantial certainty that some injury would result from his conduct.”
Also, Mr. Casey testified in his deposition that he did not “intend to injure” Mr. Williams. However, Mr. Casey admitted in the same deposition that he understood that “when you hit somebody with a fist… You know you are going to do some level of injury” was enough to trigger the policy’s exclusion as a matter of law.
The Appeals Court ruled despite the effects of alcohol and marijuana, acting in combination with his pre-existing anger at Mr. Williams, that Mr. Casey by his own admission, was not so significantly under the influence, or “out of control” that “he lost the capacity to plan, and to act effectively on that plan.”
The Court also found that based on Mr. Casey’s stated memory of the events there was no genuine dispute that aside from his consumption of alcohol and marijuana, he had the capacity to form the intent and plan and kick Mr. Williams and that: “given the nature of the act…Mr. Casey must be held as a matter of law to have expected or intended to cause Williams some bodily injury.”
The Court went on to state that “because Mr. Casey intended to commit the inherently harmful act, his subjective intent as to the degree of injury he intended to cause is irrelevant.”
Thus, the Court held that the Superior Court decision, ruling that the policy exclusion applied, because Mr. William received bodily injuries expected or intended by Mr. Casey, Liberty Mutual had no duty to defend and indemnify its insured or to pay medical benefits to the victim.