PA Superior Court Hears Argument on Insurance Claim of Domestic Violence Arson Victim

By Susan Frietsche, WLP Senior Staff Attorney

Q.: What’s worse than having your house burned down by your abusive spouse?

 A.: Finding out your insurance company won’t cover the damage.

On April 2, 2013, the Women’s Law Project presented oral argument to the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Lynn v. Nationwide Insurance Company, a case of first impression involving the insurance claim of a domestic violence survivor whose abuser intentionally set fire to their house.

At stake is the continued vitality of a 2006 Pennsylvania law (referred to by the Women’s Law Project as the “Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act”) that requires insurers to pay the claims of innocent co-insureds when their property is deliberately destroyed by an abusive partner. This statute was passed after a ten-year lobbying effort by dozens of domestic violence advocacy organizations led by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Terry Fromson, Managing Attorney of the Women’s Law Project. The passage of the Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act was part of a larger initiative to fight a host of insurance industry practices that disadvantaged or endangered domestic abuse survivors, described here.  The trial judge in the Lynn case misinterpreted this statute to require insurers to pay the property claim of a domestic violence survivor only when the claimant can show that the insurer’s reason for denying coverage was because of discriminatory animus against domestic violence victims—a showing that is virtually impossible to make.

In the Lynn case, a woman drugged her two children, left her husband an angry suicide note, and set fire to the family home with herself and her children inside it. She did not succeed in harming herself or her children, fortunately, but the house was damaged, and the woman is currently incarcerated for these offenses. When her husband filed a claim under their homeowner’s policy, he was turned down, and among the grounds for its denial of the claim, Nationwide cited a clause in their contract that excludes coverage of damage caused by the intentional acts of anyone insured under the policy. As applied here, this intentional act exclusion essentially blamed the victim for the wrongs the abuser committed.

On appeal from the trial court order holding that Nationwide did not have to pay the husband’s claim, an all-female Superior Court panel (Judges Bowes, Donohue, and Mundy), sitting at a special session at the Beaver County Courthouse in western Pennsylvania, heard argument from attorney Gary Davis, representing the appellant Brian Lynn, and from Sue Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project, representing the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and two dozen other Pennsylvania non-profit organizations that serve domestic violence survivors. To read the amicus brief, click here.

If the lower court’s opinion is permitted to stand, the impact on domestic violence victims will be devastating. One of the primary reasons abuse victims cannot get out of violent relationships is economic: they face destitution if they leave. Permitting abusers to leave their victims homeless will make it very difficult for survivors to put their lives back together. It also violates the plain language of the Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act, a statute specifically adopted to avoid this very injustice. The Superior Court may issue its ruling at any time.

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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