Pa. High Court: Murder Spree is Single Event under Home Insurance Policy

December 31, 2007

An insurance company can be required to defend policyholders accused of negligence in the aftermath of a deadly shooting spree conducted by their son, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled.

However, the shooting spree that took five lives over several hours at various locations should be considered a single occurrence and not several under the Donegal Mutual Insurance Co. policy’s $300,000 per occurrence limit, the state’s high court also ruled.

The court reasoned that the parents’ alleged negligence was a single occurrence covered by the policy even though multiple deaths and injuries followed.

The high court agreed with lower court rulings that the homeowners insurance policy Donegal issued to Andrejs and Inese Baumhammers was triggered by the actions of their son, Richard, a former attorney who was convicted of killing five people and leaving a sixth paralyzed during a rampage in April 2000.

However, in its split decision, the high court differed with lower courts on the single occurrence question. An Allegheny County judge and state Superior Court had ruled each shooting qualified as a separate occurrence, which could have exposed Donegal Mutual to as much as $1.8 million in payments to the estates of the victims.

Justice Cynthia A. Baldwin, who wrote the opinion, was joined by Justices Ronald Castille, Thomas Saylor and Michael Eakin. Chief Justice Ralph Cappy and Justice Max Baer filed concurring and dissenting opinions.

On April 28, 2000, Richard Baumhammers, who lived with his parents, left home and shot and killed his neighbor, Anita Gordon, at her home which he then set on fire. He then drove to Scott Township where he killed Anil Thakur and seriously wounded Sandip Patel, after which he drove to Robinson Township and shot and killed Ji-Ye Sun and Thao Pak Pam. Finally, Baumhammers drove to Center Township where he shot and killed Garry Lee. The entire series of events occurred within a two hour time period.

On May 9, 2001, Baumhammers was convicted of first degree murder with respect to the five victims who died, and aggravated assault and attempted homicide for the shooting of Patel.

Donegal Mutual asked the courts to determine whether the multiple shootings qualified as an “accident” under its insurance policy. Donegal also sought to determine whether the alleged negligence of Andrejs and Inese Baumhammers and the subsequent shootings by their son constituted a single “occurrence” under the policy or whether each shooting of the victims qualified as a separate occurrence.

The Supreme Court affirmed a Superior Court’s decision that an “accident” happened, but reversed the Superior Court’s finding of multiple occurrences.

The victims alleged that the parents were negligent in their failure to procure adequate mental health treatment their son; failure to take their son’s handgun away from him; and failure to notify police that he possessed a handgun.

Donegal argued that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Baumhammers or his parents in the civil actions filed against them by plaintiffs since the shootings were not accidental but were instead the result of intentional conduct not covered by the policy.

Donegal additionally asserted that if, however, Baumhammers or his parents were entitled to have Donegal defend and potentially indemnify them, the shootings were the result of a single “occurrence.”

The high court sought to examine whether the victims’ injuries were caused by an “accident” that constituted an “occurrence” under the policy. The high court said that the claims asserted by the plaintiffs contain the degree of fortuity contemplated by the ordinary definition of accident. “The extraordinary shooting spree embarked upon by Baumhammers resulting in injuries to Plaintiffs cannot be said to be the natural and expected result of Parents’ alleged acts of negligence. Rather, Plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by an event so unexpected, undesigned and fortuitous as to qualify as accidental within the terms of the policy,” the court said.

Because the parents’ alleged negligence resulted in the tragic accidental injuries to the individual plaintiffs, Donegal is required to defend them, the court ruled.

Next the court weighed whether the injuries to the six individual victims constituted six separate “occurrences” or one single “occurrence” in order to ascertain the limits of liability coverage.

The Superior Court had reasoned that the parents’ liability was not triggered until their negligence led to Baumhammers’ shooting rampage. Therefore, that court concluded that Baumhammers’ independent acts of shooting each of his victims constituted the immediate injury-producing act and that the alleged negligence of the parents resulted in six distinct attacks on six individuals.

But the Supreme Court disagreed with that reasoning, concluding instead that to determine the number of “occurrences” for which an insurance company is to provide coverage, the better approach is to focus on the act of the insured that gave rise to the liability. “Because coverage is predicated on Parents’ inaction, and the resulting injuries to the several victims stem from that one cause, we hold that Parents’ alleged single act of negligence constitutes one accident and one occurrence,” Justice Brown wrote for the court.

The parents’ alleged negligence is the “occurrence” that began the sequence of events that resulted in the eventual injuries to the plaintiffs, according to the decision.

“In this case, the fact that there were multiple victims does not determine the limits of Parents’ liability coverage; the number of occurrences does. Although this is a disturbing case with tragic consequences, we are compelled to conclude that Parents’ alleged negligence constituted but a single “occurrence” for purposes of coverage under the Donegal insurance policy. Thus, we reverse the Superior Court’s finding that Donegal is required to provide coverage for six separate occurrences,” Justice Brown concluded.

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