The mother of a baby girl who was killed by her father may pursue a claim against the father’s insurer because of unresolved questions, including whether the death was an accident, a divided Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
In a 4-3 decision, the high court reversed a ruling by the Barron County Circuit Court that dismissed a lawsuit against State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. filed by Lindsey Dostal. The father, Curtis Strand, was convicted of second-degree reckless homicide, but that fact alone does not establish the baby girl’s death was not an “accident” covered by the State Farm policy, the majority decided.
Just because someone intentionally acts recklessly, doesn’t mean the consequence of that recklessness is not an accident, the majority said in an opinion written by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.
“For example, if a person is driving 90 miles per hour on a city street, such conduct would no doubt be reckless, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an ‘accident’ if the driver unintentionally hits a pedestrian,” the opinion says.
Dostal and Strand were in an on-again, off-again relationship for 17 years and had a child together, Haeven Dostal. The baby died from a head trauma that occurred on July 11, 2017 while she was in Strand’s care. The girl was three months old at the time.
Strand gave conflicting accounts to police. He first said the baby rolled off his knee while bottle feeding. Later, he said he dropped the baby when he turned and struck a kitchen island after warming a bottle.
In both versions, Strand acknowledged that he put the baby to bed without seeking medical attention. The child had a four-inch long gash on her scalp.
Strand was convicted of second-degree reckless homicide and sentenced in June 2020 to 12 years in prison, according to local news reports. He was 34 at the time.
Dostal filed a lawsuit alleging that her daughter was killed because of Strand’s negligence. State Farm, Strand’s homeowners’ insurer, intervened in the case.
The policy included liability insurance, but only if there was an “occurrence,” which was defined as an accident that caused bodily injury or property damage. The insurer persuaded the trial court dismiss the lawsuit by arguing that Haeven’s death could not be an accident because Strand’s actions were not accidental. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals agreed and affirmed the judgment.
Both of the lower courts found there was no accident because a conviction for reckless homicide requires a jury to find that the killer was aware his actions created a risk of death or great bodily harm.
The Supreme Court majority, however, said that an accident can occur even if there is an awareness of risk. The jury that convicted Strand did not make any finding about whether the death was the result of an accident.
“The term is not defined in the policy, but under a common understanding of ‘accident,’ it would seem that even if one engages in reckless conduct, a resulting injury can still be, in the common parlance of the word, ‘accidental,'” the majority opinion says.
The opinion said it found appellate court decisions in New York and Illinois persuasive. In the New York case, the court found coverage was owed to the family of a man who was shot and killed by a friend who was cleaning his shotgun even though the shooter was convicted of second-degree manslaughter. In the Illinois case, the court ruled an insurer was liable to the estate of a man who was shot by its policyholder, who pleaded guilty to reckless conduct.
The Supreme Court also rejected State Farm’s argument that a “resident relative” exclusion in the policy precluded coverage. The court said testimony showed Haeven had spent the night alone with her father on only four occasions. The mother testified that Strand “was usually too busy or didn’t have time for the baby or didn’t want her over there.”
The three dissenting justices said the lower court rulings should have been affirmed because the terms “criminal recklessness” and “accident” are inconsistent with each other.
“In finding Strand guilty of recklessly killing Haeven, the jury explicitly rejected the possibility that her death was an ‘accident,'” the minority opinion, written by Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler, says.
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