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Fight Instigated at Golf Course Not an “Accident” for Insurance Purposes

Golf is not supposed to be a contact sport. But when a fight broke out between two golfing groups at a Georgia club, litigation followed, and a federal appeals court had to settle at least one issue.. The court found the man who instigated the brawl could not turn to his homeowner’s insurance carrier to pay for his victim’s injuries.

Meritplan Insurance Company v. Leverette

The defendant in this case was playing golf with friends. At some point, he “exchanged verbal insults” with a golfer in another group. The argument escalated, and the defendant grabbed the victim’s golf club, prompting a physical fight. A member of the defendant’s golf group kicked the victim in the head to the point where he lost consciousness.

The victim was subsequently treated for “severe and permanent injuries.” The victim sued the defendant in Georgia state court, accusing him of negligence, assault and battery, and related charges. The victim said the defendant was responsible for “creating a dangerous situation” that led to his injuries.

The defendant asked his homeowner’s insurance carrier, Meritplan, to defend him against the victim’s lawsuit. He claimed the altercation was an “accident” covered by his policy. Meritplan disagreed and filed its own lawsuit against the defendant in federal court, asking a judge to declare the insurer owed no duty to the policyholder under these circumstances.
The judge agreed with Meritplan and granted the insurer summary judgment. The defendant appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which oversees all federal trial courts in Georgia, found no error in the trial judge’s decision and affirmed.
The defendant’s policy covered any lawsuit brought against the defendant for “damages…caused by an ‘occurrence’,” such as an “accident.” Since the policy did not expressly define “accident,” the appeals court applied Georgia insurance law, where it means “an unexpected happening rather than one occurring through intention or design.” Whether or not an incident is “unexpected” depends on the viewpoint of the insured person.

In this case, the appeals court noted that the events leading up to the victim’s injuries–and hence his lawsuit–“did not take place without [the defendant’s] foresight, expectation, or design.” After all, the defendant grabbed the victim’s golf club with the intent of striking the victim. Even if the defendant did not intend to harm the victim as severely as he did, the fact remains he “acted intentionally and voluntarily,” and therefore cannot claim the injuries were the result of an “accident” or “accidental means,” as specified in the insurance policy.

The defendant argued in the Court of Appeals that he was acting in self-defense. This would render his conduct insurable under a “reasonable force” clause in the policy. The appeals court dismissed this argument out-of-hand, however, because the defendant never raised the issue before the trial court. As a matter of judicial procedure, a party generally cannot raise an issue for the first time on appeal. It’s unclear how the trial judge might have ruled on the self-defense claim had it been properly raised.