Conn. Appeals Court Reverses Lower Court on Coverage for Husband’s Shooting of Wife in Bed

August 12, 2004

The state Appellate Court in Connecticut has reversed a Superior Court ruling that the shooting of his wife by a husband is covered under a homeowners policy.

The unanimous ruling denies the imprisoned husband coverage for legal and other expenses incurred after he was sued by his wife for damages from the shooting.

On March 5, 1999, Matthew Berube, a registered nurse, climbed into bed with his then wife, Christine, also a nurse, and their two month old daughter with a sawed-off .22 caliber rifle. After a short while, the weapon discharged, injuring Christine, who brought action against her husband to recover damages. Matthew Berube then turned to his homeowners insurance company, Allstate Insurance, to defend and indemnify him against his wife’s claims.

Allstate declined to defend the husband policyholder, arguing that the shooting was not an occurrence for which payment was due and that it was a criminal act for which coverage was excluded under terms of the homeowners policy.

Berube was arrested and charged with assault in the first degree, reckless endangerment and risk of injury to a child. He pleaded no contest and received a prison sentence.

At the Superior Court trial over the insurance defense claim, the court ruled against Allstate, holding that the shooting was an occurrence under the policy and that the wife’s claim was not excluded from coverage as a criminal act because the shooting was accidental.

The homeowners policy defines an occurrence in part as “an accident…resulting in bodily injury.”

Berube’s wife testified that she believed the shooting may not have been an accident. She suggested it may have been done to collect insurance money.

The Superior Court, while noting that Matthew Berube had been convicted of crimes after pleading no contest, nevertheless found that his action was neither intentional nor criminal in part because he was neither wilful nor reckless. It found the insurer was obligated to defend the husband under the policy.

Allstate appealed that decision, claiming the court was incorrect in determining both that the shooting was accidental and that coverage existed. The insurer said the conviction of the husband was enough to show his act was criminal and therefore excluded under the policy.

The Appellate Court found that the lower court was “not clearly erroneous” in concluding that the shooting was an occurrence under the terms of the policy. The higher court said there was some evidence for the conclusion that the shooting was not intentional and therefore an accident.

However it disagreed with the trial court’s findings that putting the child at risk was not a criminal act because it was not willful, and that there was no evidence that the husband acted recklessly. The appellate court said the trial court erred by confusing the notions of willfulness and specific intent and by ignoring evidence of recklessness.

“In this case, there is no question that Matthew Berube voluntarily got into bed with his former wife and daughter with a loaded sawed-off .22 caliber shotgun and, as such, this conduct was indisputably wilful,” wrote Judge Thomas Bishop.

“Having proved that Matthew Berube acted voluntarily when he got into bed with a loaded weapon, the state need not prove his criminal culpability,” added Bishop, analogizing to the situation of an intoxicated driver whose reckless driving results in injuries to a child.

“Thus proof of wilful behavior that recklessly exposes a minor to injury may be sufficient to convict a defendant of risk of injury to a child even if the defendant did not have the specific intent to expose the child to a risk of injury,” the decision stated.

In the matter of reckless endangerment, the appellate court found that the lower court erred in finding there was no evidence that the husband acted recklessly, when in fact there was evidence.

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