11th Circuit Clears Insurer in Fight Over Venomous Spider Infestation

The court held that brown recluse spiders are both insects and vermin, barring insurance coverage for infestation damage.  

A brown recluse spider. (Photo courtesy of Missouri Department of Conservation.)

ATLANTA (CN) — An Alabama family whose home was overrun by venomous brown recluse spiders cannot revive their lawsuit against the insurance company that denied their claim for property damages, an 11th Circuit panel ruled.

Finding that brown recluse spiders fall under an insurance policy exclusion denying coverage for vermin and insects, a three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based appeals court held Monday that a federal judge correctly dismissed Maggie and Cody Robinson’s lawsuit against their insurer, Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.

The couple sued Liberty Mutual in 2018 for breach of contract and bad faith after the company denied their claim for damages brought on by a massive and “unassailable” spider infestation that left their home unlivable.

According to court documents, the Robinsons and their two young children found brown recluse spiders in nearly every nook and cranny of their Gadsden, Alabama home. Spiders were discovered under their beds, inside their light fixtures, and even inside their children’s clothing and shoes.

Three separate attempts by exterminators to eradicate the infestation failed and the spiders remained in the house.

Although it is extremely rare to die from a brown recluse spider bite, their venom can destroy human tissue and cause painful wounds which can become blackened and necrotic.

In severe cases, symptoms caused by brown recluse bites can include weakness, joint pain, organ failure, and death. According to a 2019 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, children are more susceptible to severe symptoms caused by brown recluse bites. 

There is no known antidote for brown recluse venom.

Liberty Mutual denied the Robinsons’ property damage claim due to an insect/vermin damage exclusion in the insurance policy. The company reasoned that since spiders are insects, the exclusion to coverage applied.

The Robinsons countered that spiders are arachnids, not insects, and are therefore not specifically identified in the policy exclusion.

In an 11-page ruling, the 11th Circuit agreed with Liberty Mutual that brown recluse spiders are both insects and vermin.

 “The Robinsons maintain that, scientifically speaking, spiders are arachnids, not insects. And even the dictionaries acknowledge this distinction by either specifying that spiders are insects in popular usage or stressing that spiders are ‘technically’ not ‘insects,’” U.S. Circuit Judge William Pryor, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote on behalf of the unanimous panel.

“But that technical or scientific meaning does not control our interpretation of the Robinsons’ policy,” he added.

Noting that Alabama law requires courts to analyze the terms of insurance contracts according to their ordinary, rather than their technical, meaning, the panel determined that an ordinary person would understand the term “insect” to include spiders.

The 11th Circuit also found that an ordinary person would understand the word “vermin” to include brown recluse spiders, especially in light of the Robinsons’ own allegations about the pervasiveness of the infestation.

Pryor was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Britt Grant, a Donald Trump appointee, and Senior U.S. District Judge John Antoon II, a Bill Clinton appointee sitting by designation from the Middle District of Florida.

The court heard oral arguments in the case last month.

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