While premises liability is often associated with commercial businesses (think a slip-and-fall at the supermarket), any property owner may be held responsible if an invited guest is injured. This is why homeowners insurance policies typically offer liability coverage. For instance, if someone falls down the stairs at your house, your homeowners insurance will cover the medical bills.
Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance Co. v. Roberts
What if someone is injured on your property in a criminal act? Insurers often try to disclaim coverage in such situations. But depending on the precise wording of the policy, the insurer may still be liable.
A recent decision from the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta presents a helpful illustration. This case involves a rather sordid incident that took place at a private home in Villa Rica, Georgia, about 30 miles west of Atlanta. The homeowner had an invited guest–the victim in this case–at the property. At some point, the homeowner’s then-husband entered and “confronted” the two, according to court records. As the victim attempted to leave the property, the husband “shot him multiple times with a handgun.”
The victim filed a premises liability lawsuit against the homeowner and her husband. The homeowner had an insurance policy that covered liability in the event of an “accident…resulting in bodily injury” on the property. The insurer filed a separate lawsuit against the victim and the homeowner, seeking a court order that the intentional shooting of the victim did not constitute an “accident” subject to coverage.
A federal judge sided with the insurer, but the 11th Circuit said that decision was premature. While the appeals court did not expressly find the policy applied to this event, it did find the trial court applied the incorrect legal standard.
What this comes down to is how you define “accident” in the context of a homeowners insurance policy. Under Georgia law, an accident is normally defined as “an event which takes place without one’s foresight or expectation or design” Obviously, the homeowners’ husband could foresee his own actions. But as the 11th Circuit explained, Georgia courts have consistently held the issue is whether the event that caused the victim’s injuries could be foreseen “from the viewpoint of the insured.”
Put another way, if you take out a homeowners’ insurance policy, and without warning a third party attacks your guest, that is not something you could have foreseen. So it is an “accident” from your standpoint. Unless your policy expressly defines “accident” to exclude such events, you are entitled to coverage. This is because any ambiguous language in an insurance contract must be “construed against the insurer,” since they are the ones who drafted the policy.
All that said, the insurer in the Villa Rica case may still not be liable for the victim’s injuries. This is because there remains an unresolved factual dispute over whether the homeowner’s husband was also considered an “insured” person under the policy. Most homeowners policies contain language excluding coverage for “intentional criminal acts” committed by the insured persons.