What the Trayvon Martin shooting teaches us about home insurance and self-defense
The case of Trayvon Martin – the Florida teenager who was shot to death by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in February 2012 – has sparked a fierce debate about exactly what constitutes a self-defense shooting. One thing is certain, though: If you do shoot someone intentionally in or around your home, you can’t count on your home insurance to protect you.
“Shooting an intruder in your home or an armed robber in a public place is generally considered an intentional act,” says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. “And insurance is sold primarily to cover accidents.”
But insurers do look at such shootings on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes will extend coverage after conducting an investigation, says Kevin Glaser, president of Risk & Insurance Services Consulting in Wisconsin. “It gets a little murky concerning guns with self-defense, because people are entitled to defend themselves,” Glaser says.
Self-defense can cost you
Experts say many consumers, including some who keep guns in their homes, don’t fully understand the ramifications of an intentional shooting. They can face criminal and other legal consequences – no matter how justified the shooting – and they can get quite expensive, experts say.
“There’s going to be a criminal investigation,” says attorney Paul Bucher, a gun owner and former district attorney who runs a private law practice in Wisconsin. “If you just killed somebody, they’re not going to say, ‘OK, it was self-defense, have a nice day, bye.’ It’s going to cost you money – you’re looking at several thousand dollars to retain me or any other competent lawyer.”
That’s what happened in the summer of 2011 when a man in Wisconsin, who lived in a rural area near a lake, heard a noise in his garage in the middle of the night. He grabbed his gun, went outside and yelled loudly to warn the suspect he had a weapon, Bucher says. Holding an object in one hand, the intruder yelled “I do too! I’ll shoot you!” and charged at the homeowner. The homeowner shot and killed the intruder.
The homeowner then hired Bucher to represent him. No criminal charges were filed, Bucher says, but the shooter lost peace of mind as well as money.
“My client had no choice – it was not a conscious act that he wanted to do – he believed if he didn’t take split-second action, he was going to be killed,” Bucher says. “My client’s life wasn’t the same afterward.”
In addition to a criminal investigation, a self-defense shooting can involve civil liability — the possibility of being sued.
“Are you going to be sued? Maybe,” Bucher says. “Does your homeowner’s insurance cover it? Likely not.”
Bucher says that in his recent case, the intruder’s family has not sued his client, but the homeowner’s insurance company has said it would not cover the shooting anyway. “I called American Family,” Bucher says, “and they denied coverage.”
American Family spokesman Steve Witmer says: “A shooting like that would be excluded because it would be considered an intentional act.”
Have a gun? Be prepared
If you keep a gun in your home, experts recommend that you take steps to prepare for the potential of a self-defense shooting.
First, they say, gun owners should get safety training — how to use the gun and what to do in scenarios that might call for self-defense.
“You don’t simply buy a gun and think you’re ready to enter a gun fight with a violent criminal. Get as much training and as much refresher (training) as possible,” says firearms expert Massad Ayoob, director of Florida’s Massad Ayoob Group. The company teaches firearms classes, including one that covers legal, tactical and psychological issues related to using lethal force in self-defense situations.
It’s crucial to actually spend time at a shooting range with a qualified instructor, Bucher says.
“You need to learn how to shoot the gun,” Bucher says. “I think live-fire exercises should be mandatory.”
Homeowners also should be prepared for the practicalities of dealing with an intruder, such as:
• How scary this scenario can be.
• What to say or yell to a suspected intruder.
• How to decide whether and when to use deadly force.
• How to handle a 911 call and how to deal with police when they arrive.
Laws vary from state to state, so learn your state’s laws ahead of time.
“It’s generally a good idea if you think you might ever have to pull a gun on someone in self-defense to know what the legal parameters are and what aftermath you can expect,” Ayoob says.
Most states have what’s known as a “castle” law – which lets people protect themselves, others and the property inside their homes, or their “castles.” Some states, such as Texas, extend the “castle” to include a person’s car and workplace. But other states, such as New York, do not always authorize the use of lethal force if you could safely escape the threat by retreating. (One exception to New York’s “duty to retreat” rule: If you’re in your own home and you were not the initial aggressor, you may use deadly force if necessary.)
In states with a so-called “stand your ground” law – like the now-famous one in Florida – people inside or outside their homes don’t have to retreat when threatened, as long as they are entitled to be where they are.
Nonetheless, one of the most important things a gun owner can learn before a situation occurs is how to avoid a shooting if possible. Bucher says: “You don’t have to flee – but don’t shoot them if you don’t have to. This isn’t the Wild West.”
Insurance options for gun owners
Gun owners should check with their homeowner’s insurance company to find out exactly what is covered and excluded, experts say, and also consider purchasing self-defense insurance.
“I think most people have a sense that (a self-defense shooting) would be covered by their homeowner’s policy – people think they’re covered by homeowner’s insurance for a whole myriad of things,” says Jeff Hewitt, senior vice president at Lockton Affinity, which sells insurance endorsed by the National Rifle Association.
Homeowners who find out they’re not covered by their home insurance have several options. For example, Lockton offers NRA members an excess personal liability policy with a self-defense rider for $165 a year for a $100,000 limit or $254 a year for a $250,000 limit. Both options have a $50,000 sublimit for criminal defense, and the remainder could go to pay for a civil attorney and damages if the policyholder gets sued.
The demand for self-defense insurance is increasing, Hewitt says, as awareness rises; about 100 new policies are being sold by Lockton each month. “People are starting to read stories in local newspapers or national news where someone is stuck with a $60,000 defense bill for a criminal case just to get acquitted,” he says.
Chris Monge, manager of Affordable Family Insurance in Wisconsin, says he had to undertake months of research to assemble options for gun owners seeking coverage from his agency.
“What we have put together for our clients is not a specific self-defense insurance,” says Monge, a gun owner who was determined to find a solution when Lloyd’s of London stopped offering the firearm policy he used to sell.
Instead, Monge found a legal membership program that costs $130 a year, and several insurers that include language covering self-defense – including two that sell homeowner’s policies and others that offer excess liability “umbrella” coverage — that start at $70 a year for a $1 million coverage limit. Even for clients with homeowner’s insurance, he recommends an umbrella policy that covers self-defense because it will protect them when they leave their property and are involved in a self-defense shooting. A bonus, he says, is that the umbrella policy provides coverage for more than just self-defense. Instances that could be covered include:
• A visitor trips and falls inside your house.
• A child you’re babysitting has an accident.
• You cause a car crash that seriously injures – or kills – one or more people.
“Hopefully you will never, ever have to pull your gun and use it, but every day you drive your car – and there’s the possibility of smashing into somebody,” Monge says. “It’s a bigger weapon than the one you have in your pocket.”