The Dichotomy Between Intent to Injure and Intentional Conduct

Most liability policies require that the claim arise from an accident or occurrence typically defined in a way that the accident or occurrence is a fortuitous event and not an intentional act. The typical automobile accident or slip and fall are accidents; nothing premeditated or planned, no intent to cause harm, no intent to drive over the median or cause someone to trip on uneven carpeting. But in some cases, there are allegations of intentional conduct or actions and raise coverage issues.

Liability policies also typically have exclusions for bodily injury or property damage expected or intended by the insured or for injuries arising from the use of an automobile that intentionally causes bodily injury or property damage. Where there are allegations of intentional conduct, insurance carriers may choose to disclaim liability and, if no allegations of negligence remain, defense. How courts in different states address these issues, however, is not as uniform as one would think.

If a person intentionally throws an object or grabs onto a person’s body it is easy to define the person’s action as intentional conduct. For example, in a case where a boy was hanging from a basketball rim in a gym, his friends pulled down on his legs. The boy fell and was injured. There is no question that the victim’s friends intended to pull on his legs. But did they intend to hurt him? Is that question relevant?

In the case described above, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the court’s focus has to be on whether the injury was intentional, not just whether the conduct was intentional. Am. Family Ins. Co. v. Walser, 628 N.W.2d 605 (Minn. 2001). In Minnesota, the focus is also on the consequences of the insured’s acts. So where there is no intent to injury, the incident is an accident, even if the conduct itself was intentional. Id. at 612. Intent to injure can be inferred as a matter of law, but only when the insured acted in a calculated and remorseless manner or when the insured’s actions were such that the insured knew or should have known that a harm was substantially certain to result from the insured’s conduct. Id. at 613.

This is a fine line to draw. For example, where a cup filled with urine was tossed out of a car and the cup slipped out of the insured’s hands and hit the victim in the eye, the court held that because of the inherent nature of the conduct alleged, whatever physical injuries resulted from that conduct were intentional, irrespective of the insured’s subjective intent and notwithstanding that the actual injuries may have been more extensive than anticipated. Unitrin Auto & Home Ins. Co. v. Sullivan, No. 14-21632, 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 178 (N.Y. Sup., Suffolk Co. Jan 4, 2016). In other words, where the harm to a victim flows directly from and is inherent in the nature of the act allegedly committed by the insured, the harm will be deemed to have been intentionally caused. Id. (citations omitted).

What facts rise to the level as those that inherently result in intentional harm? As usual, the facts matter and mere allegations of intent are insufficient to answer the question.