How Many Times Did that “Occur”? Alaska Supreme Court Confirms that Multiple Injuries Do Not Signify Multiple “Occurrences”

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In United Services Automobile Association v. Neary, Nos. S-14580, S-14600, 2013 WL 4399129 (Alaska, Aug. 16, 2013), the Supreme Court of Alaska confirmed that a gunshot that kills one person and injures several others constitutes one “occurrence” under a liability policy.

Fifteen-year-old Kevin Michaud  accidentally fired a gun owned by his parents.  The bullet killed one of his friends and seriously injured another.  The parents of the two victims sued Michaud and his parents, and Michaud’s parents and the victims’ parents both sued the Michaud parents’ insurer, United Services Automobile Association (“USAA”).

The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment as to USAA’s liability under the USAA policy, which provided a $300,000 limit for “Each Occurrence.”  A question arose on summary judgment relating to the number of “occurrences.”  USAA claimed there was only one, whereas the plaintiffs claimed there had been multiple.  The trial court held there was only one “occurrence.”

The victims’ parents appealed, presenting two different theories as to why the gunshot gave rise to multiple “occurrences.”  First, they said that each act of negligence that enabled Michaud to shoot the gun should have counted as a separate “occurrence.”  Following this line of reasoning, Michaud’s own negligent handling of the gun, and each negligent act of his parents in failing to secure their gun and supervise his activities, constituted separate “occurrences.”  The argument was rejected.  Under Alaska law, “it is the unforeseen event, not every act of negligence preceding it, that constitutes the accident or occurrence for purposes of insurance coverage.”  Although there may have been multiple acts of negligence, it was the single gunshot that constituted the “occurrence.”

In the alternative, the victims’ parents argued that the number of “occurrences” was derived from the number of injuries, and that  there were six “occurrences” because there were six different injuries – i.e. the injuries caused to each of the two victims, and then the emotional distress that each of the four parents suffered.  The court rejected this argument, noting that this “effects” test would render insurers’ liability both unpredictable and limitless.

Affirming the trial court’s decision, the court concluded that the unforeseen and unexpected firing of the single gunshot had caused all the injuries, and was therefore the sole “occurrence.”