Intentional Act Versus Accident

Fort Worth insurance lawyers can tell you that most insurance policies do not cover acts committed intentionally by the insured. They only cover accidents. A 1997, Dallas Court of Appeals case shows at least one way how this works. The style of the case is, Wessinger v. Fire Insurance Exchange.
Michael D. Wessinger got drunk and inexplicably punched Dennis Lee Morrison in the face several times, causing permanent vision loss. Wessinger does not deny that he attacked Morrison, but claims his intoxication influenced his decision to punch Morrison; he does not remember punching Morrison; and he never intended to injure Morrison. In this insurance coverage case the court has to decide whether Wessinger’s drunken decision to punch Morrison constitutes an accident, so that it falls within the definition of an occurrence covered by Wessinger’s homeowner’s insurance policy. Because the court concluded that voluntary intoxication does not destroy the volitional and intentional nature of Wessinger’s conduct and that Morrison’s injuries naturally resulted from that conduct, Wessinger’s act was not accidental and thus not a covered occurrence.
Morrison initially sued Wessinger alleging that Wessinger negligently caused him injury when, in a drunken fit, Wessinger punched Morrison repeatedly in the head. A jury found Wessinger liable and awarded Morrison $127,187 in damages. The district court signed a judgment on the verdict.
Fire Insurance Exchange, Wessinger’s homeowner’s insurance company, then filed this declaratory judgment action challenging coverage for the incident made the basis of Morrison’s original lawsuit. Wessinger and Morrison answered and counterclaimed, asserting that, by denying coverage, Fire Insurance breached its insurance contract and violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act and the Texas Insurance Code.
After answering Wessinger and Morrison’s counterclaim and conducting discovery, Fire Insurance moved for summary judgment arguing that Wessinger’s homeowner’s policy did not cover Wessinger’s conduct for two reasons. First, Wessinger’s actions were not accidental and thus not a covered occurrence under its policy. Second, Morrison’s damages were the result of Wessinger’s intentional conduct and thus a policy exclusion prevented coverage.
According to Wessinger’s homeowner’s policy, coverage exists only for “bodily injury” or “property damage” caused by an “occurrence.” An “occurrence” under the policy is defined as an “accident.” But the policy does not define the term “accident.”
Courts determine whether certain conduct constitutes an “accident” for purposes of insurance coverage on a case-by-case basis.
The court performed a two-step analysis.
First, it determined the specific “acts” alleged to be the cause of the plaintiff’s damages and then whether the acts were “voluntary and intentional.” If determined that the acts that produced the alleged injuries were committed involuntarily and unintentionally, the inquiry stops there because the results of the acts would be accidental. But if the court determines the acts were committed voluntarily and intentionally, it must then decide whether the injuries were a “natural result” of the acts.
When a result is not the natural and probable consequence of an act or course of action, it is produced by accidental means. The natural result of an act is the result that ordinarily follows, may be reasonably anticipated, and ought to be expected. This standard is objective. A person is held to intend the natural and probable results of his acts even if he did not subjectively intend or anticipate those consequences.
First, both Texas criminal and civil law have long prevented a person from claiming voluntary intoxication as a defense to liability. Texas Penal Code section 8.04 specifically prohibits the use of voluntary intoxication as a defense to liability: “Voluntary intoxication does not constitute a defense to the commission of a crime.” Similarly, in the civil context, voluntary intoxication is not a defense to either negligent or reckless conduct. Texas courts have ruled that “if intoxication is not a defense to a crime and does not excuse ordinary negligence, it should not relieve one from the consequences of a wrong greater than mere negligence, his heedless and reckless disregard of the rights of others…. To hold otherwise would be to put a premium on drunkenness.”
Second, Texas public policy echoes this policy. In another case, the court refused to allow the insured to assert voluntary intoxication to defeat the “accident” definition’s intent requirement because to do so “would be to create the ability to act unwisely without the requisite financial responsibility.” Texas public policy, too, “prohibits permitting an insured to benefit from his own wrongdoing. ‘It is axiomatic in the insurance industry that one should not be able to insure against one’s own intentional misconduct.’ … The rationale behind the public policy is that the insured is more likely to engage in behavior which is harmful to society if he believes he will not have to bear the financial costs of his intentional indiscretions.” Public policy supports this conclusion, that voluntary intoxication cannot be used to defeat the intent requirement in an insurance policy. Allowing that result would relieve individuals who commit intentional acts while voluntarily intoxicated of financial responsibility for their drunken conduct and encourage, rather than deter, this kind of behavior.
For the reasons already discussed, the fact of intoxication does not destroy the volitional nature of conduct. Wessinger deliberately, albeit drunkenly, repeatedly hit Morrison in the head. While Wessinger’s intoxication may explain why he violently attacked his friend Morrison, it does not change the fact that punching or striking Morrison was a voluntary and intentional act and thus not accidental. The court concluded Wessinger’s conduct was voluntary and intentional.
Wessinger’s conduct was thus not an accident and, consequently, not a covered occurrence.