Inferred Intent Applies to Exclude Coverage When Actor Kills Another But Claims Lack of Mental Capacity

June 27, 2007

The Court of Appeals just published Nationwide Mutual Fire Ins. Co. v. Pelgen, et. al, which dealt with “inferred intent” as it applies to exclude coverage for intentional acts. “Under Kentucky precedent, certain actions by the insured give rise to an “inferred intent,” regardless of the actor’s actual intent, so as to preclude coverage.” The issue addressed was whether the Campbell Circuit Court erred in failing to apply the inferred intent rule to an insured who killed his wife at a time when it is alleged that he lacked the mental capacity to form intent.

Charles R. Swope fatally shot his wife, Cloay Lou Swope, and then shot and killed himself. Some time prior to the incident, Cloay had moved out, and apparently the couple’s marriage was floundering. Cloay was outside at Charles’ residence, the former marital home, when Charles retrieved a shotgun and shot Cloay twice, while she held their three-year-old daughter. He then went inside and shot himself. The record does show that for several years preceding the tragic event, Charles suffered from mental illness manifesting in psychosis, delusions, auditory hallucinations and suicidal thoughts, and that his mental condition probably deteriorated further during the four to six months preceding the shootings.

The administratrix of Charles’ estate, sought personal liability coverage under a Nationwide Homeowner’s policy. Nationwide denied coverage in part under the policy’s stated exclusion for bodily injury “caused intentionally by . . . an insured, including willful acts the result of which the insured knows or ought to know will follow from the insured’s conduct.” The Circuit Court held that Nationwide could not rely on the policy exclusion to deny coverage for the harm resulting from Swope’s acts, because Swope lacked the capacity to understand the physical nature of the consequences of his actions and could not form any intent.

The Court discussed the inferred intent rule under Kentucky law. It concluded; “The inferred intent rule is supported by sound public policy principles, in part because it removes from the trial court the burden of determining an actor’s thought process when engaging in conduct resulting in harm. That is to say, in certain circumstances one may reasonably infer from the facts that the actor intended the harm, without needing to resort to proof of that intent.” The Court then discussed the application of the rule to the current case:

We believe it would be similarly unsound to hold that Swope acted unintentionally when he deliberately pointed a gun at his wife’s face, pulled the trigger, and then took the same gun and shot himself. As noted above, the couple was estranged, their relationship was subject to ongoing strife, Swope retrieved a shotgun from the house, and he used it on his wife, the person with whom he was in conflict. Regardless of whether he was psychotic or unable to appreciate right from wrong, his state of mind obviously was such that he was able to act deliberately and intentionally with respect to Cloay. Additionally, he had sufficient presence of mind not to shoot his daughter whom his wife was holding or any other family members or neighbors who may have been in the area. We conclude, therefore, that the Campbell Circuit Court erred in failing to apply the inferred intent rule.

While the Court was sympathetic to the Swope family, it did not believe Nationwide “contracted to provide coverage in instances like the one at bar.”

Two things come to mind. The first is that coverage under the Nationwide policy is provided for “accidents.” It is not an “all risk” policy, providing coverage for any and all occurrences. Before you even reach the question of whether the act for which coverage is sought is excluded as “intentional”, you must first determine whether it even qualifies for coverage. There are no facts in this case, which would even remotely suggest this is an accidental shooting. Simply put, there is no coverage for this claim, regardless of Swope’s intent at the time of the shooting, without some indication it was accidental. The fact that Swope could not allegedly form intent, does not make this an accident covered under the policy.

Second, the Court was correct to note that Swope’s actions, although perhaps excusable due to his mental state, are still intentional ones, excluded under the policy. Swope intentionally shot and killed his wife. There is no other reason that he went into the house, grabbed a loaded shotgun, pointed it at his wife’s face, and pulled the trigger twice, then went into the house and shot himself. Can it even be rationally argued that his intent was anything else but to do harm to his wife and himself? While Swope may be excused from criminal sanction due to his mental state, (although if he lived I seriously doubt he would be excused), that fact alone does not make his actions any less intentional. This is certainly a sad and unfortunate case, but it’s simply not the kind of “occurrence” that homeowners’ policies are meant to cover.

One Response to “Inferred Intent Applies to Exclude Coverage When Actor Kills Another But Claims Lack of Mental Capacity”

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