If you hire a contractor to work at your house, or you forget to salt your sidewalks in the winter, can you be sued if someone is injured on your property or in your home?
This is a common question with a somewhat complex answer.
As personal injury lawyers in Milwaukee, let us walk you through the details and help you understand if you may be liable or responsible for an injury at your home and to help you determine how your insurance may cover you.
Homeowner’s Insurance Coverage
Homeowner’s Insurance policies provide several different types of coverage. For example:
- It will cover damage to the home caused by things such as lightning or a tree falling on it
- It will cover burglary to your home and loss of its contents
If you injure someone through your negligence, you can be sued and your homeowner’s insurance coverage may provide coverage under those circumstances, too. For example:
- Where a motor vehicle is not involved and you injure someone on a bike or rollerblades
- Not applying salt to an icy driveway
- Allowing your exterior steps to become uneven or dangerous
Insurance policies typically are not written in the clearest of terms, at least not in terms that most laypeople can understand. Even lawyers who do not deal with these policies on a regular basis struggle through the meaning of this legal jargon.
These home policies typically have a section, or part that deals with liability to others. People may expect to see language in the policy that we will cover you if you negligently injure someone. Surprisingly, the words “negligent” or “fault” are generally not present in the policy.
Understanding ‘Occurrence Clauses’
Generally, homeowner insurance policies work off some very broad language, covering people for damage arising out of an “occurrence”. That is the general coverage clause, and then there typically is a long list of exclusions to that coverage, that may include things like:
- Intentional act exclusions
- Exclusions for suit brought by a family member or resident of the household
- Suits arising out of sexually transmitted disease.
In fact, many policies have 20-30 exclusions!
In the past ten years, insurance companies have been denying claims by arguing that an activity was not even an occurrence, so they never even reach the exclusions. They do this where a person engages in an activity they know is wrong, even if an injury or accident is not reasonably expected.
An example: A worker on a construction site removes a guardrail to make getting into a work area easier, and another contractor’s employer falls because of the missing guardrail. The worker who removed the guardrail knew that it was wrong to do so, even if he did not expect anyone to get hurt. In that example, the insurance company may use this occurrence clause to deny coverage.
The main insurance coverage clause is typically written this way:
If a claim is made or a suit is brought against an "insured" for damages because of "bodily injury" or "property damage" caused by an “occurrence” to which this coverage applies, we will:
- Pay up to our limit of liability for the damages for which an "insured" is legally liable. . . .
- Provide a defense at our expense by counsel of our choice . . . .
The homeowner's policy will define “occurrence" as "an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions." The insurance company will argue that the volitional act of removing the guardrail was not an accident, so there is no occurrence as they define in the policy.
A Local Case Highlighting Occurrence Clause
In one case we had involving an accident in a tavern, a statue of Jack Daniels, about 5 feet tall, was placed on the outside of the rails of a second store balcony. A young patron leaned into the statue, which moved. She wanted to show her friend that the statue was loose, and pushed it again, sending it tumbling onto the patrons below. In the trial court, the judge determined that, although this girl didn’t realize she was going to push the statue over the ledge, she did a volitional act that she knew was wrong. The insurance company did not have to cover her for this.
This is a problematic issue for individuals and businesses, as it is easy to find fault and a volitional act in almost any incident. This is an evolving area of the law, and it is creating a great deal of uncertainty in the courts.
Do you have questions about occurrence clause as it relates to a injury or accident at another’s home or place of business? Contact us now for a free case evaluation and see if we can help you.
At Murphy & Prachthauser we are attorneys in Milwaukee who practice the law the way it should be practiced – motivated and equipped to do our best for you. We take pride in being good lawyers who help people.
If you have a case you would like to speak to a personal injury lawyer about, please contact us to schedule a free case evaluation and get experienced Milwaukee attorneys working on your behalf.