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Homeowners’ Insurer Not Liable for Fatal Shooting at Party Hosted by Owner’s Son

Just as auto insurance provides liability coverage in the event a driver is sued for causing an accident, most Georgia homeowners’ insurance policies protect the homeowner in the event that someone is injured on their property. For example, if the homeowner was negligent in maintaining their driveway and someone has a trip-and-fall accident, the homeowners’ insurance carrier could be on the hook for the victim’s medical bills and other damages. As with any kind of insurance claim, it is important for the owner to promptly notify the homeowners’ insurance carrier anytime there is an accident that may lead to litigation.

Travelers Indemnity Company of America v. Jones

If there is any way for an insurance company to avoid paying a personal injury claim, it will take it. Consider this recent decision by a federal judge in Athens. This case arises from particularly tragic circumstances. A 23-year-old woman was going to a party at a house in Athens. But as she was still seated in her car, she was struck and killed by a stray bullet, the byproduct of a gun fight between two groups on the property.

The party was hosted by the son of the house’s owner, who was not present at the time of the victim’s death. Several months later, an attorney representing the victim’s parents notified the homeowner that they planned to bring a negligence lawsuit against her. The actual lawsuit was filed about four months later.

The homeowner had a homeowners’ insurance policy, which included liability coverage. The insurance company, however, filed its own preemptive lawsuit in federal court, seeking a declaration that it was not required to provide coverage. The insurer first pointed to the homeowners’ refusal to comply with the policy’s notice requirements. Like many such policies, an insured party is required to notify the insurer “as soon as is practical” about an event that may give rise to a claim. This includes forwarding any relevant correspondence to the insurer, such as the demand letter from the attorney representing the victim’s parents.

The homeowner apparently failed to give any such notice–or even request coverage under the policy–and she offered no explanation for her inaction to the court. For that reason alone, the judge said that the insurer was not required to defend the homeowner against the underlying negligence lawsuit or pay any potential damage award. Providing notice was a “condition precedent to coverage” under Georgia law, the judge said, and it was the homeowner’s duty to comply.

Even if the homeowner had given proper notice, the judge said, the policy still would not apply to the facts of this case because the homeowner’s son–the person who hosted the party where the shooting occurred–was not a covered person. The policy here only provided coverage to the homeowner herself and any relatives “who were residents of her household.” As it turned out, the owner’s son did not live with her, so he was not technically a “resident” as defined in the policy.