Prior articles posted on this blog have discussed the impact of “ambiguity” in a homeowner’s insurance policy in disputes over coverage. Generally, ambiguity is construed against the insurer which often results in the insured obtaining coverage. A recent case involving a homeowner’s request for coverage that alleged negligent entrustment of a firearm to a third party illustrates the analysis of courts in considering coverage based on competing interpretations of insurance policy language.
In Miglino v. Universal Property & Cas. Ins. Co., 174 So.3d 479 (4th DCA 2105), a homeowner filed a claim seeking defense and indemnification against a lawsuit alleging negligent entrustment of a dangerous instrumentality (i.e. a firearm) by the victim of a shooting. The insured lent a handgun to his sister. The sister, who was involved in a divorce with her spouse, used the weapon to shoot and injure the insured’s son-in-law.
The insurer denied the claim based on policy “exclusion k” contained within the insured’s homeowner’s insurance policy. This provision of the policy excluded coverage for loss “arising out of sexual molestation, corporal punishment, or physical or mental abuse.” A definition of the term “physical abuse” was noticeably absent from the policy.
The personal injury lawsuit brought by the shooting victim sought damages against his spouse for the intentional act of shooting him and the insured for negligent entrustment of the firearm. Generally, the legal doctrine of negligent entrustment imposes liability on a party who entrusts another person with a “dangerous instrumentality, which can range from a firearm to a vehicle depending on the jurisdiction, when the individual knows or should know that the recipient lacks the ability or demeanor to use the potentially dangerous item safely.
The insurer denied coverage claiming that the shooting was excluded because it constituted “physical abuse” under exclusion k. The trial court agreed and ruled in favor of the insurer. On appeal, Migliano contended that the referenced exclusion did not apply because the policy did not define “physical abuse,” so the policy was ambiguous. Based on this ambiguity, the insured contended he was entitled to have the policy interpreted as providing coverage.
However, the appellate court indicated that a policy is not ambiguous merely because a term is not specifically defined in the policy. The court explained that an insurance policy is ambiguous when it has more than one reasonable interpretation with one extending and another excluding coverage. Migliano argued that the shooting does not come within the dictionary or case law definition of physical or mental abuse. According to Migliano, multiple prior cases that considered the meaning of “physical abuse” likened the term to “actions intended to humiliate or demean” and/or “torture.”
The court considered both the Black’s Law Dictionary and a lay dictionary definition of “physical abuse.” Black’s Law Dictionary defined the term “abuse” as “[p]hysical or mental maltreatment, often resulting in mental, emotional, or physical injury.” Similarly, a lay dictionary defined abuse as “to hurt or injure by maltreatment.” The court reasoned that the shooting falls squarely within these definitions. While the court noted that torture and humiliation may have been present in prior cases that determined conduct constituting physical abuse, the decisions did not indicate that these types of mistreatment were a necessary component of physical abuse.
The court found that the act of shooting another fell unambiguously within the dictionary definition of physical abuse, so coverage for the lawsuit was excluded. Policyholders need to keep in mind that while courts will construe ambiguity to the benefit of the insured, the insured must persuasively argue that the policy is in fact ambiguous for the court to apply this presumption.
You can reach Miami Insurance Claims Lawyer J.P. Gonzalez-Sirgo by dialing his direct number at (786) 272-5841, calling the main office at (305) 461-1095, or Toll Free at 1 (866) 71-CLAIM or email Attorney Gonzalez-Sirgo directly at [email protected].