Vermont Mut. Ins. Co. v. Walukiewicz

Decision Date17 March 2009
Docket NumberNo. 18061.,18061.
Citation966 A.2d 672,290 Conn. 582
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesVERMONT MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY v. Joseph S. WALUKIEWICZ et al.

Proloy K. Das, Hartford, with whom, on the brief, was Shannon C. Kief, for the appellant (defendant Kevin Brown).

Thomas C. Clark, with whom were Melicent B. Thompson, and, on the brief, Aileen R. Wilson, Avon, for the appellee (plaintiff).

ROGERS, C.J., and NORCOTT, PALMER, ZARELLA and SCHALLER, Js.

ROGERS, C.J.

The primary question raised by this appeal is whether provisions in the liability insurance portion of a homeowner's insurance policy (policy) that afford indemnification for damages resulting from accidents, but not for intentionally caused injuries, preclude coverage for an insured who, when acting in self-defense, causes bodily injury to another. The plaintiff, Vermont Mutual Insurance Company, brought this declaratory judgment action1 to obtain a determination of whether it was obligated to defend or indemnify its insured, the named defendant, Joseph S. Walukiewicz, in connection with a personal injury action brought by the defendant, Kevin Brown, following an altercation between the two men.2 Brown appeals3 from the judgment of the trial court, following a jury trial, determining that the policy did not afford coverage. He argues that, because the court misinterpreted the relevant terms of the policy to deny coverage regardless of whether an insured is acting in self-defense it improperly excluded evidence of Walukiewicz' subjective intent at the time of the altercation and of the extent of Brown's injuries and, further, improperly instructed the jury as to the standards to apply. We agree that there is coverage when an insured acts in self-defense and, accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court.

The following facts, which essentially are undisputed, and procedural history are relevant to the appeal. On April 15, 2002, an altercation between Walukiewicz and Brown occurred outside the home of Brown's estranged wife.4 Brown had arrived there seeking to speak with his wife, and Walukiewicz, after informing Brown that she was sleeping, encouraged Brown to leave. The two men continued to discuss the matter while standing in close proximity to each other on the front porch of the house. At some point, Walukiewicz grabbed Brown, turned to one side and tossed Brown away from him. As a result of these actions, Brown fell down the porch steps and sustained significant injuries to his leg. Thereafter, Brown brought a negligence action against Walukiewicz (negligence action) to recover damages associated with those injuries. See Brown v. Robishaw, 282 Conn. 628, 630-31, 922 A.2d 1086 (2007). The plaintiff then brought the present action seeking declaratory relief, namely, a determination that it was not obligated to defend Walukiewicz or to indemnify him in the event of a judgment against him in the negligence action.5

The relevant provisions of the policy affording liability coverage to Walukiewicz are as follows. Pursuant to § II. E of the policy, an insured is entitled to indemnification, up to the policy limit, when "a claim is made or a suit is brought against [the] `insured' for damages because of `bodily injury' or `property damage' caused by an `occurrence' ...." An "`[o]ccurrence'" is defined in the policy as "an accident ... which results, during the policy period, in: a. `Bodily injury'; or b. `property damage.' " The policy also contains a number of exclusions applicable to § II.E. Pertinently, the exclusion section of the policy provides that coverage under § II.E "do[es] not apply to `bodily injury' or `property damage': a. Which is expected or intended by the `insured'...." Such a provision is common in liability insurance policies and typically is referred to as an intentional acts exclusion or intentional injury exclusion.6 See Kennedy v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 738 F.Supp. 511, 513 (S.D.Ga.1990) (characterizing exclusion as "boilerplate language in modern liability insurance policies"), aff'd, 914 F.2d 269 (11th Cir.1990); see also 18 E. Holmes, Appleman on Insurance (2d 2001) § 123.2, p. 62. Pursuant to the policy, the plaintiff is obligated both to indemnify Walukiewicz, up to the policy limits, for damages for which he is found legally liable, and, further, to provide a defense to Walukiewicz in an action brought against him to recover such damages.

Prior to a jury trial to determine whether the policy provisions provided coverage for Brown's negligence claim, the plaintiff filed two motions in limine. The first motion sought to preclude evidence as to the nature and extent of Brown's injuries.7 The second motion sought to preclude any evidence that Walukiewicz was acting in self-defense. The trial court granted both of the motions. As to the first motion, the trial court reasoned that the proper inquiry for determining whether the intentional injury exclusion applied was an objective one, i.e., if one intends to act, it may be inferred that he also intends the natural and probable consequences of that act. Accordingly, evidence that might indicate whether Walukiewicz subjectively had intended to inflict the injuries suffered by Brown was not relevant.8 As to the second motion, the court reasoned that the policy did not explicitly provide for a self-defense exception to the intentional injury exclusion, that a person acting in self-defense necessarily is acting intentionally, and that self-defense, while it perhaps provides a justification or motive for an act that causes injury, does not render that act unintentional.

When charging the jurors on the applicable law, the trial court gave instructions consistent with its earlier rulings on the motions in limine. The court first instructed the jury to consider whether there had been an "occurrence, which really in short order means was there an accident?" The court explained that the concepts of "intentional" and "accidental" were mutually exclusive such that, if the events of April 15, 2002, were intentional, they were not accidental. The court defined "accident" as, inter alia, "an unintended occurrence," and directed the jurors, when considering whether the events in question were unintended, not to consider Walukiewicz' subjective intent, but rather, to apply an objective standard, specifically, whether "an ordinary, reasonable person [would] be able to foresee that [Walukiewicz' actions were] substantially likely to cause someone an injury .... That is, if you grab somebody, you turn them, and you throw him, is it likely that they're going to get hurt? If the answer to that question is yes, it's not an accident and, therefore, there's no coverage."9 In regard to the intentional injury exclusion, the court instructed the jurors that "it's also an objective standard. It doesn't matter what ... Walukiewicz intended, it only matters whether or not ... a reasonable person would expect that somebody might suffer an injury, substantial likelihood of an injury in this event.... [T]he inquiry is similar on both [policy provisions] ...." The court subsequently reiterated that Walukiewicz' subjective intent and whether he was acting in self-defense were not relevant considerations, and that the jurors should ignore any evidence in that regard. The trial court denied Brown's request to instruct the jury that an exception to the intentional injury exclusion in the policy would apply if the jury found that Walukiewicz, when he grabbed and tossed Brown, had been acting in self-defense.10

The jury was presented with interrogatories reflecting the court's instructions.11 On the basis of the jurors' responses to those interrogatories, the trial court rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff.12 This appeal followed.

The claims raised on appeal essentially are subsidiary components of the same legal question, namely, whether the subjective intent of the insured has any relevance in determining whether there is insurance coverage for injuries caused by his actions. Specifically, Brown claims that the trial court improperly concluded that Walukiewicz' subjective intent during the altercation was irrelevant to the determination of whether the policy afforded coverage. According to Brown, Walukiewicz' subjective intent was relevant for purposes of determining both whether the incident at issue was an accident, and, therefore, an occurrence for which coverage was afforded, and whether Walukiewicz expected or intended bodily injury to Brown, such that the intentional injury exclusion would apply to preclude coverage. He claims specifically that acts taken in self-defense fall within the definition of occurrence, and that injuries caused by those acts do not fall within the intentional injury exclusion. Brown argues that the trial court's misconstruction of the policy caused the court improperly to exclude relevant evidence and to instruct the jury to use an objective rather than a subjective standard when determining Walukiewicz' intent.

The plaintiff argues in response that the express language of the policy is unambiguous, that it contains no exception to the intentional injury exclusion for injuries inflicted in self-defense, and that for this court to read such an exception into the policy would be to alter improperly the terms of an insurance contract. It further urges this court to follow the reasoning of those courts that have concluded that actions taken in self-defense are not accidental and that injuries caused by those actions fall within the ambit of exclusionary provisions such as the one at issue here. According to the plaintiff, the trial court properly instructed the jury that an objective standard was to be applied in assessing whether Walukiewicz expected or intended to injure Brown. We agree with the position advocated by Brown.

Before turning to the issues on appeal, we observe that this case, at least initially,...

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