In its decision in Albert v. Mid-Century Insurance Company, which was published on May 20, 2015, the California Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District) concluded that a homeowners liability insurance policy which promised to pay for property damage resulting from an accident did not cover the insured's deliberate trimming of her neighbor's trees.
Shelly Albert purchased a homeowners’ insurance policy from Mid-Century Insurance Company. The policy provided that that the insurer would pay for damages which the insured becomes legally liable to pay because of property damage resulting from an occurrence. The policy defined "occurrence" as an accident that results in property damage.
Albert retained a contractor to cut and prune trees which she contended were on her property. Albert believed that the tree trimming was required by a city brush clearance ordinance.
Henri Baccouche, Ms. Albert's neighbor, sued Albert for damage Albert caused to his property when Albert's contractor trimmed trees on Baccouche's property.
Albert tendered Baccouche's claim to Mid-Century to provide defense. The insurer refused to defend the lawsuit because the conduct giving rise to Baccouche's claim was not an accident, and thus was not covered by the homeowners’ policy.
Albert sued Mid-Century for bad faith. The trial court granted the insurer's motion for summary judgment and dismissed Albert's lawsuit. Albert filed an appeal.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court explained that on a motion for summary judgment in a duty to defend action against an insurer, the insured must prove the existence of a potential for coverage, while the insurer must establish the absence of any such potential. In this case, there was no potential for coverage.
Citing a California Appellate Court decision, the Court of Appeal observed, "When an insured intends the acts resulting in the injury or damage, it is not an accident 'merely because the insured did not intend to cause injury. The insured's subjective intent is irrelevant.'" In this case, Albert contended that she did not intend to damage the trees but only intended to prune them to comply with the city ordinance. The court concluded that "it is completely irrelevant that [Albert] did not intend to damage the trees, because she intended them to be pruned." The fact is that Albert deliberately hired a contractor to trim the trees, and that deliberate act was not an accident.
The Court of Appeal held, "Under any view of the underlying events, the trimming of the trees was no accident. Plaintiff failed to carry her burden to show any of Mr. Baccouche's claims may fall within the scope of the policy. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in granting the defendant's motion for summary judgment."
A copy of the Court of Appeal's opinion is available at www.courts.ca.gov