Social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube have become platforms for schoolyard bullies to harass their peers. For parents, this means not only worrying about their children’s welfare, but also whether their homeowner's liability insurance will stand the test of a cyberbullying lawsuit if their child is accused of harassing someone online.
“Many people assume their homeowner’s policy will cover them if they are hit with a cyberbully lawsuit, but personal injury is typically not covered under standard home insurance policies,” says Matt Cullina, CEO of Identity Theft 911, an ID management consulting firm in Rhode Island.
Personal liability protects homeowners from claims for injuries and property damage that occurs on their property, such as if your dog bites a neighbor or someone slips and falls on your stairs. It also covers costs for legal defense in the event of being sued. It does not, however, cover losses caused by intentional acts.
“The reality is that many incidents of cyberbullying are not covered by homeowner’s liability insurance, leaving many families vulnerable to a lawsuit. Even if personal injury is included, there could be exclusionary language, such as ‘intentional acts,’ that could bar coverage,” Cullina says.
While the insurance industry has been tracking it, Cullina says cyberbullying remains a gray area of Internet-related libel claims, involving one person publishing something untrue online about another person with the intent to cause harm.
In October 2011, the American Association of Insurance Services, an advisory group that produces a variety of forms for insurers, made cyberbullying – or “electronic aggression” — an excluded offense under newly their revised forms for personal umbrella coverage. An umbrella policy covers legal costs if you're sued.
ISO, which also provides policy forms to insurers, took a different approach to cyberbullying. In May 2011, ISO began providing insurers with an optional home insurance rider, which changes coverage in a basic policy. The ISO endorsement provides consumers with personal injury coverage – including “material that slanders or libels a person."
Most state laws don’t cover bullying that occurs away from a school campus. Parents who file a lawsuit over cyberbullying must prove that the bully intentionally caused emotional distress.
“Because cyberbullying is such a new phenomenon, schools, parents, insurers and law enforcement officials are still sorting out the legal technicalities,” Cullina says. “While something published online can seem libelous, in order to prove libel, you have to prove malicious intent, and that can be hard to do with kids and teens.”
Steve DeWarns, a California police officer who founded Internetchildsafety.net, a website that provides information on how to keep children safe online, says cyberbullying is on the rise, with a recent survey by McAfee showing 43 percent of teens had experienced some form of cyberbullying in the past year.
“Certainly in the future, we can expect to see more civil cases regarding cyberbullying,” DeWarns says.
To ensure your kids are safe online and to reduce the risk of being on either side of a cyberbullying lawsuit, experts recommend:
- Reviewing liability coverage with your insurance agent. Ask your insurer whether your current policy would cover a cyberbullying claim. “Many homeowner's policies do not cover this,” Cullina says, “and you may need to purchase a personal injury endorsement … to your standard homeowner's policy.”
- Teaching digital etiquette to your children. David Hilgen, a spokesman for insurance giant Chubb, says: “A good rule of thumb is, if you wouldn't say it to your grandmother, don't post it online.”
- Monitoring your child’s online activity. Many online conversations are kept “out of parental sight,” Cullina says. How do you change that? One recommendation: Install software that can monitor what your child does on the web.