Quarterly Newsletter Fall 2018
In the wake of the clergy abuse scandals and the “me too” movement, Washington has seen an uptick in sexual abuse claims. These claims raise coverage issues if the policy provides “occurrence” coverage and/or contains intentional act and/or sexual abuse exclusions. Recently, a Washington federal district court judge weighed on this issue and found that an insurer owed no duty to defend a sexual abuse claim that failed to alleged an “occurrence” and that was excluded under the policy even when the underlying complaint alleged a negligence-based claim against the insureds.
Safeco Ins. Co. of Amer. V. Wolk, 2018 WL 5295250, C18-5368 RBL (W.D. Wash., Oct. 25, 2018), arises from a liability claim under two Safeco Homeowners insurance policies. The claim against the homeowners (Mr. and Mrs. Wolk) was based on a minor, female guest in the Wolk home, who claimed that she was sexually assaulted by Mr. Wolk. Her complaint, filed in state court, specifically alleged that Mr. Wolk sexually abused the plaintiff on multiple occasions, between the years 2014 and 2016, and that Mrs. Wolk knew or should have known of the behavior of Mr. Wolk and failed to satisfy her duty to protect plaintiff from harm. Plaintiff further alleged that Mrs. Wolk, by her actions and inactions, made it more difficult for plaintiff to make any complaint about the sexual abuse or to protect herself from said abuse, and further, by her actions and inactions, contributed to the occurrence of the sexual abuse. In addition to the torts of battery, assault, and outrage, the plaintiff alleged “negligent supervision and care” against Mrs. Wolk. The Wolks tendered defense of the case to Safeco, which denied coverage for Mr. Wolk, and defended Mrs. Wolk under a reservation of rights. Safeco subsequently filed a declaratory judgment action regarding its coverage obligations under the policy.
The Court rejected the insured’s initial argument that the motion was premature because no discovery had occurred. The Court found that discovery regarding Safeco’s “historic interpretation of its homeowner’s policies” and the exclusions at issue was unnecessary because the duty to defend was based on the “eight corners” of the policy and the underlying complaint and there was nothing unique about this case that required discovery outside these documents. The Court noted that the policy is a form policy and there is no evidence that the insured had some unique intent with respect to the form policy’s language.