CHARLESTON – Just because a 19-year-old drank too much at someone's home doesn't mean the homeowner's insurer has to pay for a fatal accident she caused down the road, according to the state Supreme Court.
The Justices held on Dec. 15 that underage drinking at Jeff Corra's home did not fit the definition of an "occurrence" under his American Modern Home Insurance policy.
The opinion gives U.S. District Judge Joseph Goodwin a green light to grant summary judgment to American Modern Home in a suit against Corra and accident victims.
Chief Justice Spike Maynard wrote that "conduct engaged in knowingly is not an 'accident' and thus not an 'occurrence' under Mr. Corra's homeowner's policy."
He wrote that absent language to the contrary, a policy does not cover an injury caused by a homeowner permitting an underage adult to consume alcoholic beverages.
On Aug. 5, 2006, Corra's daughter threw a party at her home. Her friend Courtney McDonough, finding a half can of beer in the refrigerator, drank the beer.
McDonough then drove to buy alcohol with a group that included Joshua Tucker, who carried false identification.
They returned to the party, and McDonough drank six or seven beers.
Jeff Corra stayed outside most of the night, burning brush.
After midnight Tucker, Morgan Brown, and Matthew Humphreys climbed into McDonough's vehicle and she drove away.
The vehicle crashed. Tucker and Humphreys died, and Brown suffered serious injury.
McDonough pleaded guilty to two counts of driving under the influence of alcohol causing death and one of driving under the influence causing injury.
Jeff Corra was convicted on four counts of knowingly providing alcohol to underage persons. The Supreme Court will hear an appeal of his conviction next year.
Brown and the estates of Tucker and Humphreys notified Corra that they would bring claims under his homeowner policy.
American Modern Home sued Corra, McDonough, Brown and the estates in federal court, seeking a declaration that its policy didn't cover the accident.
American Modern Home moved for summary judgment, arguing that the injuries were not caused by an occurrence under the terms and conditions of the policy.
Goodwin couldn't find any precedent, so he certified a question to the Supreme Court of Appeals.
He wrote that the policy defined occurrence as "an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions, which results, during the policy period, in bodily injury or property damage."
He wrote, "Under West Virginia law, does knowingly permitting an underage adult to consume alcoholic beverages on a homeowner's property constitute an 'occurrence' within the meaning of the American Modern Home Insurance Company homeowner's policy at issue in this case?"
The Supreme Court of Appeals answered, "No."
Though Corra disputes his conviction, Maynard wrote, Goodwin's question "does not concern knowingly furnishing alcohol to underage individuals but rather knowingly permitting underage individuals to consume alcohol on Mr. Corra's property."
Maynard wrote that an occurrence excludes not only intentional conduct but also conduct that is foreseen and expected.
"Again, knowing conduct is certainly foreseen or expected, and thus cannot be considered an 'occurrence,'" he wrote.
In an unusual footnote, Maynard wrote that in contrast to a majority of the court, he believed American Modern Home should provide a defense for Corra.
Ancil Ramey and Michelle Piziak, of Steptoe & Johnson, represented American Modern Home.
Scott Bellomy of Huntington represented the Tucker estate, Paul Perfater of Charleston represented the Humphreys estate, and Steven Thorne of Madison represented Brown.
James Cagle of Charleston represented Corra.