In a 4-3 opinion issued April 22, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Erie Insurance Exchange must defend a personal injury case brought by a man who was shot after walking in on a policyholder’s murder-suicide, affirming an intermediate appeals court’s ruling. The ruling “may expand insurers’ duty to defend in cases where policyholders’ intentional acts cause unintended consequences,” Law360 wrote.
The publication turned to Goldberg Segalla’s Michael A. Hamilton, a Philadelphia-based partner in the firm’s Global Insurance Services practice and a leader of its Pennsylvania Insurance Coverage Team, for insight into the decision and its ramifications. Mike pointed to Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy’s dissenting opinion, which opined that the underlying complaint failed to allege an accidental occurrence in the broader context of the murder-suicide.
“The dissent was rightly focused on the entire chain of events,” Mike told Law360. “I think the majority viewed the struggle between McCutcheon and Carly in a vacuum.”
“Pennsylvania courts have consistently held that an injury is not accidental if it was a natural and expected result or consequence of the insured’s actions. Here, McCutcheon was the aggressor; he was holding a gun and screaming, swearing, incoherent and acting ‘crazy’ when he began struggling with Carly,” Mike said, quoting from allegations in the complaint. “The natural and expected result of that struggle was that the gun would go off.”
“I think courts will approach other cases on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances and allegations in the pleadings,” he added.
But, he said, the ruling may further encourage the plaintiffs’ bar to refine the language in their complaints to try to trigger defendants’ insurance policies.
“What I do think this decision will encourage is more artful pleading by plaintiffs on the front end, to try to bring their allegations within coverage,” Mike said.
Michael A. Hamilton handles sophisticated and high-exposure insurance coverage claims and commercial litigation. As a leader of the firm’s Global Insurance Services Pennsylvania and Ohio teams, Mike focuses his practice on environmental, professional liability, construction defect, transportation, and business torts/advertising injury claims. He has been lead defense counsel in class action litigation, representing insurance companies, self-insurers, and transportation entities. He also has extensive appellate experience, arguing numerous appeals in state and federal courts across the country.