Couple Argues Insurer Should Pay for Infestation of Venomous Spiders

The insurance dispute centers on whether spiders fall under the definition of “insect” or “vermin.”

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

ATLANTA (CN) — An Alabama couple whose home played host to a massive infestation of venomous brown recluse spiders has asked the 11th Circuit to reverse the dismissal of their lawsuit against their insurance company.

Maggie and Cody Robinson sued their insurer, Liberty Mutual, in 2018 for breach of contract and bad faith after the company denied their insurance claim brought on by a dangerous and “unassailable” spider infestation that rendered their family home unlivable and the contents of the home a total loss.

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

A federal judge granted Liberty Mutual’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, agreeing that the couple’s loss is excluded under the policy because the definition of insect includes spiders.

The case was scheduled for oral arguments before the 11th Circuit via telephone Friday morning but was instead submitted to the Atlanta-based appeals court based on the briefs filed by both sides.

According to court documents, the Robinsons and their two young children found brown recluse spiders in every room of their home in Gadsden, Alabama, including in their bathrooms and showers.

Spiders were discovered inside their light fixtures, under their beds, in their kitchen sink, and even inside their children’s clothing and shoes.

Three separate attempts by exterminators to eradicate the infestation inside the Robinson home failed.

Brown recluse spiders are one of only a few “medically significant” spiders in North America. Although it is extremely rare to die from a brown recluse spider bite, their venom contains a compound that can destroy human tissue and cause infections. Painful wounds can develop in the skin around the bite which can become blackened and necrotic.

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

There is no known antidote for brown recluse venom.

In a brief submitted to the 11th Circuit by their attorney, John Bowers, Jr. of Campbell Law in Birmingham, the Robinsons argued that the district court’s decision should be reversed since spiders are arachnids, not insects, and they are therefore not identified in any policy exclusion.

“The Robinsons could easily prove, if given the opportunity, that the district court’s ruling that the ordinary meaning of the term ‘insect’ necessarily must include spiders is incorrect and the district court erred in reaching this conclusion without hearing specific proof directed at the issue,” the brief states.

The couple claims that if the case is revived, the discovery process “will reveal evidence of Liberty’s wrongdoing.”

While Liberty Mutual concedes in a brief submitted by attorney John Neiman, Jr. of Maynard, Cooper and Gale that the Robinsons “deserve sympathy for what has happened to their home,” the company says the district court’s ruling should be upheld.

“The district court correctly dismissed this case because reasonably prudent purchasers of insurance would understand these spiders to be ‘vermin,’ such that the loss they caused is excluded from coverage,” the brief states.

It is unclear when the 11th Circuit will issue a ruling in the case.

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