Because deadly wreck involving ‘legally intoxicated’ minor was ‘reasonably foreseeable,’ there was no ‘accident’ and thus, insurer had no duty to defend in wrongful death lawsuit
It was no “accident.”
That’s what the Michigan Court of Appeals recently said about a fatal motor vehicle crash that occurred when minor Brett Johnson became “legally intoxicated” at a college party. He then got behind the wheel, crashed, and was tragically killed.
In Depositors Insurance Company v. Harris, et al., the appellate judges concluded that the fatal crash – which left three young people dead – was the “reasonably foreseeable” result of Justin Henika “provid[ing] alcohol” to Johnson.
Consequently, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the insurance company that issued the homeowner’s policy to Henika’s father owed no duty to defend Henika in the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the estates of the young people who were killed. Specifically, the court stated:
“Even if Henika did not provide the minors with enough alcohol to pass out, he provided them with enough alcohol to create a situation where it was foreseeable that a minor who had consumed alcohol would operate a vehicle in a negligent manner.”
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“Because Henika’s actions created a direct risk of harm that was reasonably foreseeable, the result at issue here—a vehicular crash—cannot be said to be accidental; accordingly, there was no occurrence within the meaning of the insurance policy.”
This case is important for Michigan personal injury lawyers for several reasons, beyond it being a very sad reminder about the deadly dangers involved in drunk driving and in serving alcohol to minors. I serve as the President of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and I put together and moderate an Advanced Motor Vehicle Seminar every year for the 360 Advocacy group, and this case should also put attorneys in Michigan on notice that while the lawsuit against the homeowners insurance would certainly be viable in the majority of states today, it is not here. The findings by the appellate court certainly take an additional leap when it comes to foreseeability that seems to unnecessarily exonerate the homeowners insurance company from providing coverage.
The public policy of precluding coverage when another person through drinking and driving puts the rest of us at risk of serious personal injury or death is also surprising. Why should innocent affected parties be essentially harmed twice by removing insurance coverage for those who are killed or injured by a drunk driver?
Homeowner’s insurance policy
In Depositors, the father’s homeowner’s insurance policy promised to pay damages and to defend in the event that an “‘occurrence’” leads an “insured” being sued “for damages because of ‘bodily injury.’”
Although homeowners insurance coverage under the policy depends on whether an “occurrence” has occurred (sorry for the lawyer jargon here), the most that the policy says about the meaning of “occurrence” is that it means “‘an accident.’”
What is ‘an accident’?
Because Henika’s father’s homeowner’s policy didn’t define “accident,” the Court of Appeals looked to Michigan case law to come up with a definition. I hate to write this, but as any plaintiff personal injury attorney in Michigan well knows over the past 20 years, whenever the courts in this state have turned to the dictionary, it usually means big trouble. Here’s the result:
- “If the harm was either ‘intended by the insured or reasonably should have been expected because of the direct risk of harm intentionally created by the insured’s actions,’ the intentional act cannot be classified an accident.”
Applying that reasoning to the facts in Depositors, the judges observed:
- “The intentional act at issue in the present case is Henika’s provision of alcohol to minors and the resulting harm is the car crash.”
Finally, the Court of Appeals concluded:
“[I]t does not matter if the actual harm was inflicted by a third party (Johnson) so long as the insured (Henika) should have reasonably expected that harm would occur. … Similarly, it does not matter that the harm that did occur exceeded the harm that the insured actually expected. … It also does not matter that Henika did not give the minors enough alcohol to cause them to pass out, because the resulting harm was not the kind of harm that is caused by passing out. … [T]he resulting harm was the negligent operation of a vehicle. Therefore, Depositors Insurance only had to show that Henika provided enough alcohol to the minors for him to reasonably foresee that it might impair their ability to drive.”