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Doug Landau
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Supreme Court finds insurance coverage for college "beer pong" fractured skull injury

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Having been to our our second Virginia Tech graduation in Blacksburg this week, the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision in favor of a Hokie student caught my eye. After finishing final exams at Virginia Tech, Adam Copp was celebrating and playing beer pong with one of his roommates at a Blacksburg apartment. Two strangers joined the game and one of them, Carson Dugger, said something to offend Copp. The young men then got into a shouting match that turned physical when Dugger’s friends came on the scene.

Copp found himself with four or five people between him and Dugger. Copp swung his arm and struck one of Dugger’s friends, Gregory Jacobson. Copp said he was just trying to get free from the group. Jacobson accused Copp of throwing punches and hitting him intentionally. Jacobson, the plaintiff in this case, was badly injured. Two surgeries were required to repair his fractured skull. Jacobson brought a lawsuit as the result of his severe and permanent head injuries against Copp for assault and battery, alleging intentional injury.

The Supreme Court of Virginia just handed down a decision ruling that an insurance company owes a defense for the Virginia Tech student who was sued over injuries he caused in this fight. Nationwide Insurance had a duty to defend Copp, the court ruled, because its umbrella policy contained language providing coverage for bodily injury caused by an insured “trying to protect person or property.” The “self-defense” exception required looking beyond the “eight corners” of the policy and the Complaint, the court held. Nationwide Insurance had won at the trial level, getting the Circuit Court to rule that it owed no duty to defend Copp in the lawsuit. The homeowner’s policy and the umbrella policy excluded liability for intentional acts causing personal injury, but the umbrella policy contained an exception: the exclusion “does not apply to bodily injury or property damage caused by an insured trying to protect person or property.”

In prior decisions, the court required review of only the “four corners” of the complaint and the “four corners” of the policy to decide if an insurer has a duty to defend and indemnify its insured. The analysis of both documents was referred to as the “eight corners rule.” The unusual “self-defense” exception in the umbrella policy, however, required consideration of Copp’s evidence, the Supreme Court held in an opinion authored by Senior Justice Harry L. Carrico. “[I]t requires consideration of an insured’s claim that he or she caused bodily injury or property damage trying to protect person or property in evaluating whether there is a duty to defend in a given case,” Carrico wrote. Copp v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company (Carrico, S.J.) No. 090345, April 15, 2010; Montgomery County Cir.Ct. (opinion by Circuit Court Judge Turk) Virginia Lawyers Weekly report #010-6-041