I will not be a victim! I hope it doesn’t cost me everything….

Would you defend yourself?

While loading your groceries into your car in the parking lot, a man suddenly slips out of the car next to you and touches you. Feeling threatened, you respond quickly and decisively to protect yourself, causing serious injury to his eyes.
You and your neighbor have a dispute. The argument finds its way to your doorway, which you close, hard, smashing his arm in the process. You hear a noise in the middle of the night from within the house. You take your handgun from the nightstand and go look. The silhouette of an intruder startles you and you fire your gun.
angry dog with bared teeth While jogging, a dog is suddenly bearing down on you. You turn to face it and spray it in the eyes with pepper spray. You’re hanging out at the bar and see a guy being rough with a girl. You ask him to stop but he gets into your face aggressively. You take the first swing, and he ends up at the hospital with a broken nose and missing teeth.

I think these are pretty realistic situations for almost any of us and I’ve experienced a couple of those situations personally. If you read carefully, you’ll see that each of those scenarios are a little ambiguous; the right choices aren’t necessarily clear. We often don’t have a lot of time to evaluate all the facts, and our assessment might be wrong.  Was that guy who got out of his car actually attacking you, or did he just accidentally bump in to you, startling you into action?  Was it really necessary to take a swing at the guy in the bar?

Most of us aren’t trained and practiced in self-defense. We might act when we should have just chilled out. When we act, we might cause undue harm.  Did we need to injure that dog? Was the neighbor in my doorway really threatening or was I the angry one?

You could be sued

I’m pretty sure that, faced with these kinds of situations, many of us are going to take some kind of action. The possibility of being sued for any injuries we might cause is the last thing on our minds.  In situations like these, there may only be seconds to make  decisions before it’s too late.

But after the dust settles, the details are going to get sorted out. You might have misunderstood what was happening and harmed someone unnecessarily. You might have used excessive force to defend yourself or someone else. These situations can easily give rise to lawsuits, where the injured person alleges that you are at fault in some way.

Whether or not your actions were justified is a conclusion that a judge or jury will decide.  Don’t be surprised when the other party claims that your actions were entirely unnecessary and their resulting injuries are your fault. It’s an infuriating situation, but it will only be made worse if you don’t have the right insurance coverage.

I bet you’ve never really thought about the possibility of insurance being important in a situation like this. Remember, insurance is a source of funds to pay for different kinds of losses, and being sued is a loss the moment you have the complaint in your hand.

Liability insurance is what you need

Homeowners insurance, renters insurance, landlord insurance, and umbrella insurance are all examples of policies that would normally include some kind of personal liability insurance. The typical wording that you’ll see in these policies will be something like this:

We will pay all sums any insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of or arising out of bodily injury or property damage caused by an occurrence to which this coverage applies.

Liability insurance is extremely important, and that wording pretty much tells you why. It’s very broad and deals with situations where you become responsible for costs related to injury and other damage. As you look further in your policy where more of the details are spelled out, you also should find some wording like this:

We will settle or defend, as we consider appropriate, any claim or suit for damages covered by this policy. We will do this at our expense, using attorneys of our choice. This agreement to settle or defend claims or suits ends when we have paid the limit of our liability.

The insurance company is agreeing to hire an attorney for you, pay their costs, and will pretty much do whatever is needed to make this go away.  There are limitations obviously but that’s some powerful protection. Can you see how those words describing liability coverage apply to the situations involving self-defense? I doubt you’ll get sued for breaking the nose of a serial killer torturing her 3rd victim, but in the more realistic examples I’ve given, things are less clear.

 But here’s where the catch comes in. Insurance policies are constructed very carefully. They are designed to help you pay for unforeseen and unavoidable events. Policies are also designed to encourage you to do what you can to avoid damage to your things, and to avoid causing harm to others. One way that insurance companies do this is by carving out holes in the policy with the use of exclusions. An exclusion is a description of circumstances that are NOT covered by the policy, and they can be a little tricky to read.

Does your policy exclude coverage for self-defense?

You always need to read and understand your entire policy. Every policy is different so you need to read these things every time you get a copy. But for our purposes here I want you to be very interested in one particular part of your policy, a specific exclusion. This exclusion has wording that you want to find in your policy.

Injuries and other damage that you cause as a result of defending your self is pretty much “intentional”  wouldn’t you agree? Maybe you can’t control the extent to which you cause damage or bodily harm, but when you defend yourself, you are intending to strike out, to slam the door, to gouge someone’s eyes, to trip your assailant, to shoot and possibly kill the unknown intruder. Even if you didn’t intend to cause a serious injury, serious injury is a realistic and probable outcome. Can we agree on that? That’s the crux of the insurance problem that I’m trying to point out. Intent.

In most insurance policies, when you do something intentionally that results in some kind of injury or damage, and you could have foreseen that injury occurring, you are basically uninsured. The insurance company has words in the policy that say you get no coverage for “intentional acts.”

Some insurance policies give you back coverage for intentional acts that were for self-defense.

What to look for

If this situation concerns you, if you want to know if your insurance policy will provide you with some protection when you are sued for causing injuries or damage when engaged in “self-defense”, then I have a little homework assignment for you.

  1. Go get your home insurance policy or renter’s insurance policy.
  2. Flip forward to the section that deals with “Personal Liability”.
  3. Now keep going and look for a subsection titled “Exclusions”, or “Losses that we do not pay for…”

You will certainly find some wording in there along the following lines:

Personal Liability does not apply to bodily injury or property damage:

a. which is expected or intended by any insured or which is the foreseeable result of an act or omission intended by any insured

That’s the bad news that I’ve been talking about. That wording is found in just about every insurance policy and that wording takes away coverage for self-defense.

But keep scanning your policy. We’re looking for a very important exception. It will look something like this:

This exclusion does not apply to bodily injury resulting from the use of reasonable force by any insured to protect persons or property.

If it’s there, you’ll find it before you get to the next exclusion. Isn’t that awesome? That’s the language you want to find. That little exception makes it possible that your liability policy will apply to those situations where you are defending yourself or your property.

It’s interesting to look even closer at that wording. It doesn’t say that you have to be defending yourself. You might be protecting someone else, like stopping a robbery or a rape.

Now I surveyed a bunch of our policies and a bunch of our competitors policies. I found that about half of the policies I looked at, including some big name competitors that you’d recognize, did not have that exception above so they don’t provide self-defense coverage. I also found that among the few of our policies that lacked this excellent language, the purchase of an umbrella policy from the same insurance company usually plugged the hole back up. So we have a lot of options to make sure you are adequately protected.

I think this is pretty important. Is this important to you?

Want some help figuring that out? Call us!

Robert H. Bourdeau

Without risk, there are no rewards.But when taking risks, it's important to ask "is it worth it?" Most of us are not good at evaluating risk. That's why I love insurance. When you get it, you realize that you have a tool for making choices. We can put ourselves out there, enjoy life and strive for personal and financial growth. When we fail, insurance gives us a way to recover financially, and we learn to be better. I'm a lifelong student with degrees in mathematics and computer science, a licensed insurance producer, and hold professional insurance designations including CPCU, CIC, and CRM.I enjoy distance running, bicycling, craft beers, cool people, and taking risks.

6 comments

  1. Great article! I saw it originally on LinkedIn and just had to read the whole thing. So many people, some agents included (unfortunately), just don’t understand how critical policy language can be. Your clients can have faith that you have their best interests at heart!

    I think I better go re-read my own policy now.

    1. Thanks Bill! I appreciate you coming to read the … rest of the story! I’ll be wondering what you discovered! I can only imagine, but I do have a wild kind of imagination.

  2. I will not be a victim! I hope it doesn’t cost me everything….

    This question just happened to be an “interview” question I was asked, when coming aboard Al Bourdeau as an Agent.
    It was a surprise to me to learn that I could be SUED for attacking an intruder, that invades my home and privacy! His or her intent is not to stop by at 2AM and have a cup of sleepy time tea – it is to take my possessions and or hurt or possibly even attempt to kill me or my family.
    It’s very important to know what your policy may or may not cover. Please read your policy. If you’re still not sure, call your agent. He or she that you have entrusted all of your personal possessions to – should know if you are protected.
    By the way, some companies will stand behind you, others will not. Make sure you have the appropriate coverage.
    PS. I did not answer the question correctly, even after being in this business for 14 years, I was not certain. In this day and age, you need to be certain.

    1. I remember that Kimberly! That was a trick question because, but it’s a provoking one that few people would have actually considered! Every policy is different, and little details in the wording can make all the difference in coverage. A good strategy for insurance buyers is to purchase the broadest coverage possible and to make sure that important coverage concerns are put on the table. Our challenge is to help get our clients thinking and become ever more educated about making good choices on insurance coverage. Everyone wants to save money, but a policy that doesn’t pay for the losses that DO occur isn’t going to feel like it’s worth any amount of money. This particular issue is a very good example of the many vast differences between insurance policies.

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