A woman who shot and killed an apparent intruder in her home is not covered for defense or indemnity by her homeowners’ policy, an Iowa appellate court ruled yesterday. She was sued for wrongful death and other claims by the dead man’s estate. The case is AMCO Ins. Co. and Allied Property and Casualty Ins. Co. v. Estate of Dustin Wehde and Tracey Roberts. The case isn’t out on Westlaw yet, but here is a link to the case via the court’s website.
I posted about an Oregon case in which a claim of self-defense was at issue here. According to the facts offered by Roberts in the case, the mother of three was attacked in her home by two intruders. Her two sons were 11 and 3, and her daughter was 1. She put them all in a room together and confronted the two men.
Contemporaneous accounts I found on the web, which may or may not be reliable, indicated her husband was away on a business trip. I have not gotten my hands on the appellate briefing yet, so the motive of the attackers is unclear, but it appeared to be robbery. The case said Roberts was choked unconscious, and awoke on the floor, hearing the two intruders down the hall.
She struggled with the two, according to the court’s account, and was able to get free and get a 9mm pistol from a gun safe. As one of the men, Dustin Wehde, grabbed for her, she shot him. The other man apparently fled. Roberts also took a revolver from the gun safe and left the room to check on her kids. After she went to check on the kids, she saw a figure moving near her bedroom, but her glasses had been knocked off during the struggle. She said not to move and fired a warning shot. The figure kept moving, and she shot again. Wehde died as a result of being shot by Roberts, who has not been criminally charged. However, Wehde’s estate filed suit against Roberts in late 2003. Roberts’ insurers denied defense and indemnity, saying coverage of conduct that caused intentional harm is precluded under Iowa case law.
The Court of Appeals agreed. However, it clearly wished for another result. The court cited decisions in other states holding that self-defense, as a matter of law, is not conduct that is intended to cause harm, but rather is intended to prevent harm to one’s self or to another. Because a state supreme court case has previously held otherwise, the Court of Appeals said it was up to the state’s highest court to decide whether to reverse precedent.
Saying that self-defense is intended to protect from harm rather than cause harm, of course, is merely shorthand for a public policy position that self-defense is a paramount right and insurers should have to cover it. Legislatures are free at any time to pass a law mandating that insurance companies include statements in homeowners’ policies stating the exclusion does not apply to acts of reasonable self-defense. Roberts, in fact, claimed her policy contained such a clause, but she couldn’t produce a copy of the policy proving it. Legislatures can’t impair existing contract rights, however, only change the content of future policies, but state supreme courts can, so to speak, by directing a reinterpretation of policy language.