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Arson Excluded From Coverage as Form of Vandalism, Bottee v. Southern Fidelity Ins. Co., Case No. 5D13-3235 (5th DCA 2015)

Homeowners' insurance policies are typically lengthy documents that contain many provisions most homeowners would find surprising. However, many homeowners fail to perform their due diligence and adequately examine the provisions of an insurance policy before signing. As a result, disputes often arise between insurance companies and insured individuals over the meaning of particular language in the policy. These disputes frequently occur when dealing with exclusions from coverage outlined in the policy. As the case below illustrates, parties should ensure that terms are well-defined in a policy and that the parties agree to the definitions before executing a policy.

In Bottee v. Southern Fidelity Ins. Co., an arsonist intentionally caused a fire that destroyed the plaintiff's home. The plaintiff's home was vacant for more than a month when the arsonist caused the fire. The plaintiff filed an property insurance claim with her homeowners' insurance company, which denied the claim because the insurance policy in question excluded losses caused by malicious mischief and vandalism if it had been unoccupied for greater than thirty days before the loss occurred. The plaintiff then filed an action in state court against the insurance company. The court granted the insurance company's request for summary judgment in its favor, and the plaintiff appealed.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals of Florida heard the appeal. The Court first considered the plaintiff's argument that the language of the insurance policy was ambiguous. According to the plaintiff, the insurance policy does list arson explicitly as excluded as a form of malicious mischief or vandalism. Therefore, the plaintiff contends that the policy is inherently ambiguous, and such ambiguity should be resolved in favor of coverage of the claim. According to the plaintiff, the policy provided all-risk coverage for losses due to damage to the house under Coverage A of the policy. The policy then provides coverage for losses to the contents of the home under Coverage C. The policy only excludes malicious mischief and vandalism under Coverage A. Coverage C explicitly listed both lightning or fire and malicious mischief or vandalism as covered losses. Consequently, the plaintiff argued that since the policy provided both vandalism and fire as separate types of covered losses without giving a definition for either, then fires - including arson - must be excluded from vandalism.

However, the Fifth District Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the definition of malicious mischief and vandalism is not ambiguous simply because it is undefined because the court may look to definitions in a dictionary to ascertain its ordinary and plain meaning. The policy would be interpreted to provide coverage if its language may be construed reasonably to grant or limit coverage. However, that is not the case here because the ordinary meaning of the word vandalism would include the general definition of arson. After looking at dictionary definitions, the court found that most courts would conclude that arson falls within the definition of malicious mischief and vandalism.

If your insurance company denied your homeowner's insurance claim due a particular exclusion under the policy and you believe such denial was contrary to the terms of coverage, the Miami homeowner's insurance lawyers at Greenberg, Stone & Urbano offer the assistance you need to obtain the results you desire. With over 130 combined years of experience representing homeowner's insurance clients across South Florida, our firm provides legal representation of unmatched excellence. Contact our firm as soon as possible to start on the road to protecting your legal rights. Our firm received an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell and was ranked as a top firm in South Florida by the Miami Herald. Put our exceptional personal injury attorneys to work on your case. Call us at (888) 499-9700 or (305) 595-2400 or you can visit our website to schedule your initial consultation.

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