The Massachusetts Supreme Court has concluded that a ”physical abuse“ exclusion in an insurance policy did not extend to a fight between an adult resident and visitor. A 30-year-old man, William Brengle, living with his parents got into a fistfight with Leonard Miville, a visitor at the residence next door. Miville sued Brengle, and Brengle’s insurance company denied coverage based on the exclusion of “bodily injury . . . arising out of sexual molestation, corporal punishment or physical or mental abuse.” Trial court granted summary judgment to insurance company.
The state Supreme Court reversed, holding that the exclusion did not cover fights between adults. The court concluded that “for conduct to constitute ‘physical abuse’“ within the terms of the policy, “the conduct must involve an imbalance or misuse of power in addition to being physically harmful.”
The court based its ruling on two considerations. First, the list of acts covered indicated that not just any physical altercation would be excluded. The other terms included, “sexual molestation” and “corporal punishment,” according to the court, generally involve exploitation of power. “Words are, at least in part, defined by the company they keep,” the court commented.
Second, the court noted that the exclusion rose against the backdrop of sexual abuse lawsuits in the 1980s against the Catholic Church. At that time, most policies excluded “expected or intended” bodily injury, but most courts concluded that the exclusions did not extend to sex abuse claims. Insurers responded by adopting form language that excluded molestation and abuse from coverage.
Youth organizations will still need to review their policies carefully, as the molestation and abuse exclusions will still apply to claims by children or disabled adults in the programs. Altercations between most adults, however, should still be covered by liability insurance in most states.