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Umbrella Insurance Policy Does Not Cover Judgment for Online Harassment – Heacker v. Safeco Insurance Co.

By April 25, 2012Personal Injury

Here in St. Louis, we still remember the sad story of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after cyberbullying by someone who turned out to be her adult neighbor. One result of that case was a series of laws in Missouri making it illegal or civilly actionable to harass someone else online. In the handful of years since, there have been a few cases of people prosecuted or sued under those laws, but this is still a new area of the law, which means legal systems aren’t always set up to handle real-life circumstances as they arise. That’s why, as a St. Louis personal injury attorney, I was interested to see the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Heacker v. Safeco Insurance Co. et al.. Lewis Heacker sued Jessica Wright for a variety of causes of action, all stemming from five years of harassment and defamation that included hacking into his voicemail and online accounts.
Heacker’s Jackson County, Mo., lawsuit accused Wright of sending disparaging letters and emails about him, hacking into his voicemail and Facebook accounts and making anonymous phone calls and texts, all with the intent of defaming and harassing him. The opinion didn’t go into the cause of their dispute, but media reports say Heacker was hired at age 13 as a babysitter to Wright’s kids. Wright reportedly developed a sexual relationship with Heacker that continued until he finished high school and cut off contact, at which time the alleged harassment began. He alleged this caused emotional distress leading to post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, and his lawsuit alleged a variety of tort claims including failure to supervise children, including Heacker as well as Wright’s own children.
Heacker won a $7.3 million judgment in Missouri state court, but was able to collect from only one of Wright’s several insurers and sued the others for equitable garnishment. After removal to federal court, the Missouri district court dismissed, finding no coverage from the policies at issue for the acts and time periods covered.
Heacker’s injuries. Furthermore, the Eighth agreed with the district court that “bodily injury,” under Kansas law, cannot apply to mental illness and alcoholism, even those aspects that are physical. Finally, it rejected arguments that a coverage exclusion for “mental abuse” in the umbrella policy was ambiguous, saying failure to define a term doesn’t necessarily make it ambiguous. Thus, it upheld the district court.
This case underscores a frustration for me and my clients, as a Missouri personal injury lawyer: Just because we win a case doesn’t mean the defendant will pay the full judgment. A case against an individual like Wright can be legally enforced, but Wright is unlikely to have the $7.3 million ordered by the court, so enforcement will simply hurt her credit without getting Heacker any money. The rather large amount of insurance policies Wright carried might have helped if Heacker had been injured by Wright’s dangerous dog or slipped on her front stairs, but they were written to expressly exclude the kind of intentional acts she actually did commit. That’s why, as a southern Illinois personal injury attorney, I start each case by considering what recovery is available, so I can give my clients a realistic assessment of their chances — and plan the litigation.

Based in St. Louis and Belleville, Ill., Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients across Missouri and southern Illinois who suffered serious injuries through no fault of their own. If you’d like to tell us your story and hear more about your legal options, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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