Wrongful death by tiger attack not covered by homeowners policy, 10th Circuit rules

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Tresa Baldas

April 13, 2010

An insurance company does not have to pay a Kansas family $100,000 for an accident in which a Siberian tiger attacked and killed their daughter during her senior photo shoot, a federal appeals court ruled this week.

On April 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit held that Safeco Insurance Company of America does not have to pay damages in a wrongful death suit because the homeowners policy bought by the tiger’s owners excluded coverage for business pursuits.

In 2005, Haley Hilderbrand, a 17-year-old high school student, decided to have her senior picture taken with a wild animal at a farm that was licensed to rescue and shelter exotic animals, including tigers, bears, lions, cougars, monkeys and alligators. The farm had made its animals available for photos in the past.

But on the day Haley had her picture taken, the 700-pound Siberian tiger attacked Haley. She later died from her injuries.

Thomas Warner Jr. of the Warner Law Offices in Wichita, Kan., who represented Haley’s father, Randy Hilderbrand, in both the wrongful death suit and the related insurance dispute, faults the tiger’s handler. “Some say, ‘How could the family let their daughter get her picture taken with a tiger?’ ” Warner said. “They didn’t know how lax this tiger handler would be. He held back a 700-pound, full-grown adult with only a dog leash.”

According to the 10th Circuit opinion, the handler was Doug Billingsley, whose parents, Keith and Sharon Billingsley, owned the farm, along with Animal Entertainment Productions, a for-profit partnership that exhibited the rescued animals at magic shows and other events. Doug Billingsley was a trained animal handler, who had spent time working with magic shows involving large cats in Malaysia and on a Singapore-based cruise ship. He also worked in the lion habitat of the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas.

Haley’s father, Randy Hilderbrand, sued the Billingsleys in state court, seeking monetary damages for Haley’s wrongful death. In a bench trial, a judge awarded Hilderbrand $400,000.

The Billingsleys turned to Safeco for coverage under their homeowners insurance policy. Safeco filed a declaratory judgment action in federal court, arguing that it was not required to provide coverage because Haley’s death arose out of the operation of a business, and the homeowners policy contained an exclusion for business pursuits.

After a bench trial, the district court concluded the insurance policy did not cover the attack. The 10th Circuit agreed, holding that “the district court correctly applied Kansas law to the insurance policy in question. The homeowners policy does not apply to the Billingsleys’ exotic animal rescue and exhibition business, nor does any other exception in the policy apply to the facts of this case.”

Warner noted that another insurance company involved in the case, Bremen Farmers Mutual Insurance Co., did not contest the damages sought in the wrongful death suit. That company paid his client $100,000 under another insurance policy owned by the Billingsleys.

Safeco’s lawyer, Paul Hasty Jr. of Kansas City, Mo.’s Schmitt Manz Swanson & Mulhern, was not available for comment.

Tresa Baldas can be contacted at tbaldas@alm.com.



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