Woodland Hills car accident lawyer Barry P. Goldberg comes across “Road Rage” and other arguably intentional actions that cause injuries to his clients related to cars and motorcycles in the West San Fernando Valley, including Canoga Park and Tarzana. Unfortunately, the mix of urban driving and other stresses pushes many people past the breaking point and either they run into someone, punch them or cause an accident that does not necessarily look like road rage. The question always arises: “Is this covered by insurance?”
Since there is no universal factual scenario, there is no standard answer to the road rage question. A better analysis starts by considering what kind of insurance policy is available and what exactly was the conduct that caused the injury?
Was Underlying Incident an “Accident?”
Both the Homeowners and Auto Policies provide coverage for “accidents,” and both contain exclusions for injury caused by intentional conduct by the insured. In addition, Insurance Code § 533 provides, “An insurer is not liable for a loss caused by the wilful act of the insured; but he is not exonerated by the negligence of the insured, or of the insured’s agents or others.”
Often Plaintiffs contend there are triable issues of fact as to whether a defendant’s conduct during the incident was intentional. This is difficult to prove if it was an auto accident. But, if it is a fist-fight on the side of the road, the old “negligent self-defense” argument no longer works to rope in coverage.
In those instances, insurers decline coverage on the grounds that the actions were deliberate. (Delgado v. Interinsurance Exchange of Automobile Club of Southern California (2009) 47 Cal.4th 302 (Delgado).) In Delgado, an injured party sued an insured for assault and battery, alleging the incident fell within the insurance policy’s coverage of an “accident” because the insured had acted in the unreasonable belief that he had to defend himself. (Id. at p. 305.) The California Supreme Court concluded the incident did not qualify as an accident, even if the insured believed he was acting in self-defense. “In the context of liability insurance, an accident is ‘“an unexpected, unforeseen, or undesigned happening or consequence from either a known or an unknown cause.” ’ [Citations omitted.]” (Id. at p. 308.) The court reasoned:
“We begin by noting that an injury-producing event is not an ‘accident’ within the policy’s coverage language when all of the acts, the manner in which they were done, and the objective accomplished occurred as intended by the actor. [Citations.] Here, [the insured’s] assault and battery on [the plaintiff] were acts done with the intent to cause injury; there is no allegation in the complaint that the acts themselves were merely shielding or the result of a reflex action. Therefore, the injuries were not as a matter of law accidental, and consequently there is no potential for coverage under the policy. [Citation.]” (Id. at pp. 311–312.)
The court in Delgado rejected the plaintiff’s argument that an insured’s mistaken belief in the need for self-defense converted the assault into an accidental act. The court explained, “Here, [the plaintiff’s] complaint alleges acts of wrongdoing by the insured against him. Those are the acts that must be considered the starting point of the causal series of events, not the injured party’s acts that purportedly provoked the insured into committing assault and battery on [the plaintiff]. The term ‘accident’ in the policy’s coverage clause refers to the injury-producing acts of the insured, not those of the injured party.” (Id. at p. 315.) The court concluded “that an insured’s unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense does not turn the resulting purposeful and intentional act of assault and battery into ‘an accident’ within the policy’s coverage clause,” and the insurer therefore had no duty to defend the insured in a lawsuit brought by the injured party. (Id. at p. 317; see Swain v. California Casualty Ins. Co. (2002) 99 Cal.App.4th 1, 10 [“We know of no case from this or any other jurisdiction where a harm knowingly and purposefully inflicted was held ‘accidental’ merely because the person inflicting it erroneously believed himself entitled to do so”].)
Other “Uses” of the Vehicle.
It is not unusual for an injured Plaintiff to testify that a car door or other portion of the vehicle struck him aggressively, causing him to fall to the ground, in order to claim insurance coverage. Plaintiff’s sometimes argue that this creates an issue of fact as to whether his injuries were caused by the “use” of a vehicle for purposes of accessing an automobile insurance policy. This contention is rarely works!
Usually, the allegations of a Complaint focus on the actual injury causing event. Such as: “Defendant, without provocation began striking plaintiff in the face and head causing plaintiff to fall with his bicycle to the ground.” In any case, even if a plaintiff was tangentially hit with a car door, there would be no evidence that his action was not intentional. Finally, the gravamen of the complaints are that defendant’s blows injured plaintiff, and there is rarely a basis for a conclusion that any asserted contact with the car door caused plaintiff’s injuries.
Today’s motorist needs to be careful when engaged in anything that could arguably be considered “road rage” or intentional conduct. In fact, an experience plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer can help a client so injured in properly characterizing the alleged conduct for it to be more likely to be insured. Just because a guy is a jerk, does not mean that insurance should not be accessed to pay for all the damages!