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September 7, 2012

The Insurance Implications of Social Networking Websites, Part 3

Summary:

Social media torts may not only trigger coverage under the typical personal and advertising injury provided under Coverage B of the policy, if available, but such social media torts may also trigger "bodily injury" coverage under Coverage A, depending on the particular factual circumstances.

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This is the third part of a six part series of articles discussing insurance coverage for claims that can be brought against individuals or companies because of the use of Social Media websites. Earlier articles in this series can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2. This article discusses coverages potentially triggered under Coverage A – Bodily Injury.

Bodily Injury Coverage
Even if the policy contains a personal injury coverage part (as discussed in part 2 of this series), analysis should still be made whether the policy provides coverage under the bodily injury coverage part. Oftentimes, this is dependent on the policy’s definition of “bodily injury” and “occurrence.”

Does The Defamatory Comment/Posting Made On A Blog/Website Constitute An Occurrence?
In order to trigger coverage under the policy’s insuring agreement there must be a defined “occurrence” that results in defined “bodily injury” during the policy period. Policies typically define “occurrence” as an “accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions” which results in bodily injury. Most jurisdictions hold that it is the insured’s standpoint that controls in determining whether there has been an “occurrence” that triggers the duty to defend under the policy. A majority of jurisdictions have held that an accident is “an unexpected, unforeseen, or undesigned happening or consequence from either a known or an unknown cause.” A deliberate act, therefore, is not an accident.

If the defendant publishes an internet posting that referred to the plaintiff in a derogatory manner, e.g., accusing the person of being a pedophile, then this is a deliberate act which does not constitute an occurrence as defined by the policy. Stellar v. State Farm General Ins. Co., 157 Cal. App. 4th 1498, 69 Cal. Rptr.3d 350 (Cal. App. 2007). Some jurisdictions have held that the very nature of defamation precludes the conclusion that it can occur “accidentally.” See, e.g., Uhrich v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 109 Cal.App.4th 598, 135 Cal.Rptr.2d 131 (Cal. App. 2003); Rogers v. Allstate Ins. Co., 938 So.2d 871, 876 (Miss. App. 2006); Iafallo v. Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 299 A.D.2d 925, 926, 750 N.Y.S.2d 386, 388 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). Some jurisdictions, however, recognize negligent defamation and, therefore, there may be an occurrence triggering coverage. Cincinnati Ins. Co. v. Eastern Atlantic Ins. Co., 260 F.3d 742 (7th Cir. 2001); cf., Baumann v. Elliott, 704 N.W.2d 361 (Wis. App. 2005) (finding no occurrence because complaint did not allege a negligent defamation); Farmers Ins. Exchange v. Hallaway, 564 F.Supp.2d 1047 (D. Minn. 2008) (reversing summary judgment and holding that there may be personal injury coverage because underlying lawsuit alleged negligent defamation and intent to injure had not been decided).

There are, obviously, certain factual situations that may at first blush appear to be intentional, but, upon further, investigation, may constitute an occurrence triggering coverage. For example, an individual intends on posting a defamatory comment on Facebook, spends time typing out the comment, but later decides against posting the comment, but accidentally hits “share” rather than “cancel” and so the item is accidentally posted on Facebook against the user’s wishes. Although the individual may have originally intended to post a defamatory comment, at the moment the comment was indeed posted, the individual did not have that intention. This may constitute an “occurrence” triggering coverage.

Similarly, an individual may have intended to respond to a message on Facebook with defamatory or libelous remarks, but rather than clicking the “reply” button, the individually mistakenly clicked the “reply all” button and, consequently, the message is sent to everyone on the list, rather than just the individual that the user originally intended.

Another example includes attaching a video or picture to a social media website. The individual may have intended to attach file A, but when selecting the file, the individual selected file B, which contained a picture/video of a person in a compromising position such that the individual’s privacy is invaded.

These are a few examples where the claim or complaint may allege conduct that may at first blush appear intentional, but the true facts may reveal that coverage is triggered. Further investigation may be needed to determine coverage.

Does The Emotional Distress Or Other Alleged Damages Resulting From The Defamation Constitute Bodily Injury?
“Bodily injury” is typically defined in a policy as “bodily injury, sickness or disease sustained by a person, including required care, loss of service and death that results.” Courts have held that “bodily injury” encompasses only physical injury and its consequences and does not include emotional distress in the absence of physical injury. Waller v. Truck Ins. Exchange, Inc., 11 Cal.4th 1, 44 Cal.Rptr.2d 370, 900 P.2d 619 (1995); Nguyen v. State Farm Lloyds, Inc., 947 S.W.2d 320, 323 (Tex. Ct. App. 1997); Wiard v. State Farm Mutual Auto Ins. Co., 132 N.M. 470, 50 P.3d 565 (N.M. Ct. App. 2000). Thus, pure emotional distress does not constitute “bodily injury” for purposes of a policy unless there is specific policy language providing coverage for pure emotional injuries.

Because most social media claims do not involve direct physical contact, there is generally no “bodily injury” triggering coverage in the traditional sense. However, physical manifestations of emotional distress may be covered by the policy even if there was no direct physical contact with the claimant. This may include loss of hair, loss of weight, exacerbation of existing illnesses like Crohn’s disease, etc. If the claimant alleges such physical manifestations resulting from social media torts, then there may be qualifying “bodily injury” as defined by the policy.

Hopefully, this article makes the reader aware that social media torts may not only trigger coverage under the typical personal and advertising injury provided under Coverage B of the policy, if available, but that such social media torts may also trigger “bodily injury” coverage under Coverage A, depending on the particular factual circumstances.

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