The high-profile shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida has prompted many American gun owners to wonder: Would my homeowners insurance cover me if I shot someone in self-defense?
For many policyholders, the answer is, "no." Most standard home and auto policies contain a liability clause that specifically excludes coverage for injuries or damage caused by an intentional act such as firing a gun, even in self-defense. George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer charged with killing Martin, says he acted in self-defense under Florida's "stand your ground" law.
"This is about the kind of behavior that is so unacceptable that we're not going to offer liability insurance for it," says Tom Baker, an insurance law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "One of the ways that we draw that line currently is: If it's a criminal or intentional act, that puts you outside the scope of the (insurance) umbrella."
However, a newer version of a standard homeowners policy, written a little more than a decade ago, contains an exception to the intentional acts exclusion, typically called the "self-defense" or "reasonable force" exception. It states that the exclusion does not apply "to bodily injury resulting from the use of reasonable force by an insured to protect persons or property."
"Not every homeowners policy is going to have that," warns Peter Kochenburger, executive director of the Insurance Law Center at the University of Connecticut School of Law. "And even with the self-defense coverage, (homeowners) liability only covers you for civil acts, not criminal. It may defend you against a lawsuit but not criminal charges."
Confused? So are many gun owners who are looking for indemnity against legal costs that could bankrupt them when they say they use firearms to protect their hearth and home.
'It's a touchy subject'
Extra coverage is available through two highly visible national self-defense insurance products, both offered by gun-owner associations. A few smaller, regional insurers also write similar policies.
National Rifle Association coverage, underwritten by Lloyd's of London through the brokerage firm Lockton Affinity LLC, offers two options. For $165 per year, an NRA member receives $100,000 in combined liability coverage for civil defense costs plus criminal defense reimbursement, if acquitted. For $254 annually, the combined coverage jumps to $250,000.
Self-Defense Shield protection from the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, or USCCA, through Savers Property & Casualty Insurance Co., a subsidiary of the Meadowbrook Insurance Group, offers members three benefit levels, with coverage limits ranging from $50,000 civil/$25,000 criminal to $300,000 civil/$75,000 criminal. Prices run from $127 to $297 per year.
Why is self-defense insurance coverage so affordable, given the potential risk of costly criminal and civil trials? "Because it just doesn't happen very often," says Baker. "Gun violence is a problem of criminals, not the kinds of people who have homeowners insurance."
Lockton declined to be interviewed for this story, and the USCCA failed to return calls. The sensitivity surrounding gun violence has steered mainstream insurers well away from this particular product area.
"It's a touchy subject," Baker says. "If you're a big, national carrier, you could be worried about turning off other customers."
Gun-friendly and proud of it
Chris Monge, owner of Affordable Insurance Solutions in Verona, Wis., is trying to confront the stigma. A gun owner and self-described "Second Amendment guy," Monge became frustrated trying to find an off-the-shelf insurance solution for his gun-owner clients, so he decided to build one himself.
Monge's gun-friendly insurance products combine homeowners insurance policies containing the "reasonable force" exception; umbrella policies with higher ($1 million-plus) liability limits, and a broader range of gun- and nongun-related coverage; and membership in the concealed handgun license, or CHL, Protection Plan, a Dallas-based legal assistance organization that pays criminal defense fees upfront, win or lose.
While the insurance companies in question don't necessarily tout themselves publicly as gun-friendly, Monge says he builds his bundles on homeowners policies underwritten by familiar names in the industry, with no specialty lines required.
"This is just using standard carrier policies and standard language to our advantage," he says.
The Trayvon Martin case has brought inquiries Monge's way from all over the country concerning his self-defense coverage. It now comprises half of his business as he expands nationwide, customer by customer.
"If you own a gun, whether it's concealed carry or not, you need a carrier that's going to have your back," he says. "Most insurance agents say, 'Oh yeah, you're covered,' and I laugh and say, 'No, you're not; I can show you right in your policy where it's excluded.'"
Baker says Monge and other gun-friendly independents may have discovered a lucrative self-defense insurance niche the big boys are overlooking, especially in regions where public opinion already favors gun rights.
"I'm a little surprised that some homeowners insurers in states with 'stand your ground' laws haven't decided to change their policies and offer this as a marketing strategy because there aren't going to be a lot of liability claims on this," he says. "If there are enough people that care enough about this to get the law passed, I don't see why some enterprising insurer doesn't say, 'Hey, our distinguishing feature is, we've changed our policy to reflect the law and cover you.'"
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