The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a September 22, 2010 opinion,
ruled that Colorado law does not require an insurance company to defend
or to indemnify a homeowner who is sued for stealing fencing materials,
committing the crime of felony menacing by firing an assault weapon near
his neighbors, carrying a concealed weapon, and attaching to the partially
completed fence bullet-riddled, life-sized paper targets of humans.
The case arose from a boundary dispute between adjacent neighbors that got completely out of hand. In the words of the court, the offending landowner’s response to the dispute was, “even most charitably regarded, extreme. He threatened his neighbors…with violence and punctuated his threats with gunfire.”
The trespasser/shooter pleaded guilty to the menacing and concealed weapons charges. He and his wife then sued the neighbors to quiet title to the disputed property and for damages for trespass. The neighbors counterclaimed for theft and for negligently and intentionally inflicting emotional distress upon them. The shooter then sued his homeowner’s insurance company, demanding that the company defend against the counterclaims and pay the cost of any judgment entered. The trial court entered summary judgment (without a trial) against the shooter, ruling that the insurance policy provisions excluded the shooter’s criminal conduct. The appeals court upheld the trial court’s ruling.
In the trial of the civil case between the neighbors, the jury ruled that the shooter and his wife owned the disputed property and awarded them damages of $50,005 for trespass, The jury also awarded the offended neighbors $235,000 as actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages for the mental suffering, $5,000 in punitive damages for the assault, and nominal damages for the trespass.
What do we learn from this strange case? First, it is unwise to steal, or to discharge an assault weapon just to scare your neighbors (or anyone else), or to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Second, it is not a good idea to take the law into your own hands. And finally, a homeowner’s insurance company doesn’t defend against intentional, criminal conduct.
“The Scoop on Poop in Colorado,” Colorado Business Litigation Lawyer Blog, posted 02/17/10
“Blazing Furniture Plagues Colorado City,” Colorado Business Litigation Lawyer Blog, posted 08/24/10