Part two of my series covering the Intentional Acts Exclusion brings us to the great state of Massachusetts. To accomplish this we need to focus on Baker v. Commercial Union Insurance Company,1 that involved a spouse burning down a house.
In Baker, Merton Baker sued his insurance carrier, Commercial Union Insurance Company, for compensation when his then wife, Susan Baker, intentionally set fire to their home. Merton and Susan were named joint insureds on the policy. Commercial cited the Intentional Act Exclusion as its reason to deny coverage. A jury found Commercial liable under the policy. Unfortunately for Mr. Baker, the trial court granted Commercial’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Both parties appealed.
Prior to the house being set on fire, the Bakers were having marital problems. Merton informed his then wife he would be divorcing her and taking the house. Susan responded by lighting the house on fire and watching it burn to the ground while Merton was away. There was no evidence Merton was involved in the plot to burn the house in any way. Susan had a history of psychiatric treatment, and a psychiatrist who treated her after the fire testified:
[A]s a result of mental illnesses, Susan did not have the ability at the time she set the fire to conform her conduct to the requirements of the law. He testified that he could express no opinion as to whether she knew what she was doing, whether she could appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct, or how long the period of her inability to control her conduct lasted.2
The appellate court cited the established rule that “[I]f the insured was insane at the time that he willfully or intentionally caused the fire, the insurer remains liable on the policy” unless there is an express provision to the contrary in the policy.3
Commercial asserted that since the psychiatrist had no opinion as to Susan’s mental condition under McHoul4 at the moment she watched the house burning, it was entitled to the presumption that most people are sane.5 The court disagreed noting that that issue was a question for the jury to determine. Mr. Baker met its burden of establishing that Susan was not responsible for her conduct at the time she set the fire.6
Given the foregoing, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s directed verdict and entered judgment for Mr. Baker. I end this “insanity” by breaking from the norm of baseball quotes and instead give you a meaningful quote from the late great writer and director, Nora Ephron, whose best known works include When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless In Seattle: “Insane people are always sure that they are fine. It is only the sane people who are willing to admit that they are crazy.”
1 Baker v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 382 Mass. 347 (1981).
2 Baker at 349.
3 18 Anderson, Couch’s Cyclopedia of Insurance Law.
4 The McHoul standard was adopted in Commonwealth v. McHoul, 352 Mass. 544, 546-547, 226 N.E.2d 556, 557-558 (1967)(adopting definition of insanity from Model Penal Code § 4.01.
5 See Commonwealth v. Clark, 292 Mass. 409, 415, 198 N.E. 641 (1935).
6 Baker at 352.