Killer's insurance company argues it is not liable

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George Sodini's insurance company says it should not be responsible for any damages that may be awarded in the lawsuits filed against his estate because the shootings at the LA Fitness Center a year ago today were "willful and malicious."

State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. has filed a motion in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court for declaratory judgment, asking a judge to rule that the company cannot be liable under Mr. Sodini's $100,000 personal liability policy.

The filing is a pre-emptive strike to ward off being held liable to pay Mr. Sodini's victims. His estate is the target of 11 lawsuits stemming from the shootings, which left three women dead and nine wounded. He also killed himself.

A hearing on the issue has not been scheduled.

According to his insurance policy, it covers bodily injuries if "caused by the activities of an insured." But coverage is not provided for bodily injury "which is either expected or intended by the insured; or which is the result of willful and malicious acts of the insured."

"The State Farm policy of insurance issued to Sodini does not provide coverage or a duty to defend Sodini (or his estate) because the alleged injuries claimed or that can potentially be claimed by the underlying plaintiffs were caused and alleged to have been caused as a result of conduct which was either expected or intended by Sodini," wrote David Rosenberg, State Farm's attorney.

State Farm spokesman Doug Griffith said the policy language is standard in the industry.

The company filed the motion for declaratory judgment because it believes that letting a neutral third party make the decision on the possible payout would be best for everyone.

"We'll abide by whatever the determination is," Mr. Griffith said.

Though the company expresses sympathy toward the victims, Mr. Griffith said, simply agreeing to make the one-time payment would set bad precedent for State Farm.

"Despite attempts in the complaints to veil Sodini's conduct as negligent or accidental, the uncontroverted evidence establishes that Sodini's conduct was premeditated, intentional and non-accidental," Mr. Rosenberg wrote.

But the lawsuits filed against Mr. Sodini's estate claim negligence.

"The complaint filed by this party clearly states causes of action alleging negligence of conduct, which under Pennsylvania law, it clearly imposes a duty upon [State Farm] to provide a defense to the estate of George Alfred Sodini," wrote Thomas A. Berret, who represents two victims. "Under Pennsylvania law the factual allegations in the complaint, and not the nature of the act that caused any alleged injury, is controlling in determining an insurer's duty to defend."

Further, Mr. Berret said, it can be argued that Mr. Sodini did act purposefully.

"It is believed and therefore averred that George Alfred Sodini was mentally ill on Aug. 4, 2009, and lacked the capacity to form an intentional state of mind and that, accordingly, his conduct on the day alleged was an accident or negligent event."

His conduct, Mr. Berret continued, was a direct result of negligent acts of Sodini "in failing to seek appropriate mental health care, and accordingly, constituted accidental conduct for which [State Farm] owes both a duty to defend and a duty to indemnify."

Even if those who file lawsuits against Mr. Sodini prevail in the State Farm action, the most they can recover is $300,000. That's because his estate, outside of the insurance policy, is valued at about $200,000, said Rebecca A. Bowman, the attorney hired to represent the estate.

All of Mr. Sodini's assets have been consolidated, including the sale of his Scott home, the sale of his car, and liquidation of his 401(k) and savings accounts.

Ms. Bowman's involvement in the case must continue through the declaratory judgment action, but she is trying to limit the work she does.

"Every moment I spend in the case is a dollar the victims don't get," she said.

The estate is not challenging the lawsuits. Instead, Ms. Bowman is trying to work toward a quick resolution to save the victims money.

One thing that could speed the process along, she said, is if the victims work together to come up with a way to allocate the money.

"If the victims choose to fight amongst themselves, it could be a long and tortuous process," Ms. Bowman said.

Four of the 11 victims who have given notice to sue have not yet filed their complaints.

Gusty Sunseri, who represents one of those women -- Melina Williams, who was wounded -- said he was still gathering information.

He couldn't specify how much money his client would be seeking from Mr. Sodini's estate.

"This is a tragedy," he said. "You have people that were murdered. You have people that are mentally scarred for life."


Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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