Inferred Intent Rule Overturns Jury Verdict That Shooting Was Accidental

May 20, 2008

The Court of Appeals published Kentucky Farm Bureau v. Coyle, which discussed the application of the inferred intent rule in a shooting case. The case involved Tweed, the love interest, Coyle, her husband, and Elliot, a spurned suitor. After some stalking and a disagreement between Coyle and Elliot, Coyle filed shots on two occasions, which eventually hit Elliot. Elliot sued Coyle on grounds of assault and battery, but eventually amended his complaint to claim negligence. Kentucky Farm Bureau had written a homeowner’s policy for Tweed, under which Coyle was an insured. Coyle sought coverage under the policy. Farm Bureau sought summary judgment on two occasions, claiming that Coyle’s testimony and the other facts surrounding the case clearly showed an intention on the part of Coyle to shoot Elliot, negating coverage. Both motions were denied. A jury determined at trial that the shooting was the product of negligence and not intentional.

On appeal the court noted; “We acknowledge the rule “that if injury was not actually and subjectively intended or expected by the insured, coverage is provided even though the action giving rise to the injury itself was intentional and the injury foreseeable.” However, it noted an exception to the rule, the doctrine of inferred intent. The Court noted Kentucky’s acceptance of the rule and cited to several different factual scenarios supporting the use of the rule, including shootings, physical assaults, and sexual molestation.

After reviewing Kentucky law, the Court ruled:

Pursuant to the inferred intent doctrine, Coyle’s subjective intent to harm Elliott is irrelevant. Once Coyle admitted that he intentionally pointed his weapon at Elliott and that he “intended to discharge that bullet at Elliott[,]” we cannot avoid, except through a contorted logic, the determination: (1) that “the insured’s conduct is both intentional and of such a nature and character that harm inheres in it,” (2) “that it is appropriate to apply the inferred intent rule,” and (3) that Coyle’s “actual subjective intent to harm . . . becomes irrelevant.”

Accordingly, the Court concluded; “Application of the inferred intent doctrine compels the result that Farm Bureau was entitled to summary judgment following the completion of discovery, and the case should not have proceeded to trial. Thus, the trial court erred by denying Farm Bureau’s motion for summary judgment.”

Editor’s Note: (Disclosure: Farm Bureau is a client of mine). This case is interesting because it discusses in detail the adoption and application of the inferred intent rule in Kentucky. Frankly, I thought after the Stone and Nationwide cases that the issue of intent in shooting cases was resolved. You simply can’t point a gun at someone during a dispute, pull the trigger, and later claim you didn’t mean to harm them. It doesn’t make sense, and the Court was correct to reject that notion.

Another, interesting fact was that Coyle previously pled guilty to first degree assault under extreme emotional disturbance, which requires a finding of intent to cause physical injury. As a result, Coyle should have been estopped from claiming the shooting was unintentional at trial. However, this issue was never argued, apparently.

Of course, this case raises an interesting issue that comes up often. The claim that if the cause of action is not intentional then it was negligent. You see this most often when the facts suggest an intentional tort, but negligence is alleged to come within the coverage of a liability policy. The problem is that negligence does not mean unintentional conduct. It is a claim that has its own separate elements requiring its own separate proof, which does not include a finding of a “lack of intent”. Intentional conduct is conduct whose purpose is to result in harm, or in this case can be inferred to result in harm. Negligence is the failure of some legal duty that results in foreseeable harm. One is not necessarily the opposite of the other.

If someone claims they were assaulted, a finding that the act was not intentional does not mean the act was the result of negligence. It simply means the conduct was not an intentional tort for which recovery could be had. To hold otherwise, would result in conduct either being intentional or negligent, without any ability to find the conduct as neither.  It would place the defendant in a position of either being guilty of an intentional tort or of negligence, but never being found innocent of either.

This doesn’t mean that a finding of negligence can never be reached in a case where intentional conduct is also alleged.  It means only that to prove negligence, you must prove the individual elements, not merely show the defendant’s conduct was “unintentional.”

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