Wisconsin Supreme Court Says No Coverage in Sex Abuse Case
By Gerri Elder
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has recently ruled that a couple's homeowner's insurance policy does not cover alleged negligence. The case in question involved a wife's alleged negligence for failing to prevent her husband from sexually abusing a child.
According to the Associated Press, a child and her mother sued the wife in the case and her insurance companies. The complaint alleged that Deborah Wangard was negligent because she did not prevent her husband, Steven Wangard, from sexually abusing the child between 2000 and 2003 when she was between the ages of five and eight years old. The sexual abuse happened in two homes owned by Steven and Deborah Wangard.
Steven Wangard was arrested for the sexual abuse of the child and pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault of a child. He is currently serving a five-year prison sentence.
A personal injury lawsuit regarding the sexual abuse of the child was filed against the Wangards, but was on hold pending the outcome of this case. The case was filed to determine whether either of the Wangard's homeowner's policies would cover the damages sought for Deborah Wangard's negligence. The insurance policies were issued by Great Northern Insurance Co. and Pacific Indemnity Insurance Co. and both excluded damage for intentional acts.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a narrow decision in favor of the insurance companies with a 4-3 vote which upheld a lower court ruling that the insurance policies did not cover damages for Deborah Wangard's alleged negligence. A circuit court had previously ruled that Steven Wangard was not covered by insurance and he did not appeal that decision.
Justice David Prosser wrote for the majority opinion that "No insured would reasonably expect liability coverage for damages arising out of an act of sexual assault premised upon intentional sexual contact."
Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Pat Roggensack, Patrick Cooks and Annette Ziegler agreed that the Wangard's homeowner's insurance policies did not cover Deborah Wangard's alleged negligence. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justices Louis Butler and Ann Walsh Bradley dissented. Bradley noted that the insurance policies were ambiguous as to whether or not coverage for negligence was provided. Since ambiguous insurance contracts should be decided in favor of the insured, Bradley found that Deborah Wangard should be covered.
Now the personal injury case against Steven and Deborah Wangard will go forward. If Deborah Wangard is found to have been negligent in not preventing her husband from sexually abusing the child, she will have to pay the damages without the help of her homeowner's insurance companies.