By Eric Reed
NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Did you know that the average homeowner's policy may not cover violent corpse explosion? It's true, as Florida resident Judy Rodrigo recently discovered when a court ruled against her claim under a State Farm insurance policy.
Six years ago Rodrigo's upstairs neighbor died of old age. The elderly woman had no remaining family or friends, just a puppy; so for two weeks her body remained undiscovered. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn't.
You see, after a person dies all sorts of natural processes kick in. Hair and fingernails stop growing (seriously, death does not cure baldness), skin recedes and percolating bacteria start to produce gases in most major organs. If the body sits for too long those gases build up like a jug of milk forgotten on the counter, and eventually nature takes its toll.
The corpse explodes and releases a small flood of blood, bile and fermented fluids.
This is very bad news for anyone who lives below. When the body eventually and inevitably blew, those fluids seeped down and soaked into the ceiling and walls of Rodrigo's apartment. The problem is, it appears that no one thought to add protection from decomposing neighbors to the condominium's property insurance. From the Broward/Palm Beach New Times:
"Fluid from the ruptured corpse began to seep through the floor and into he apartment below, which led the owner of that unit to sue her insurance company, claiming that it needed to pay for the damages.
"The owner of the downstairs unit, Judy Rodrigo, had claimed that the Keystone Condominium Association failed to discover the dead woman and let the corpse fester, which led it to burst, leaking corrosive fluids into her apartment and the reeking stench of death that comes along with it."
This all happened in 2008. Now, six years later, a Palm Beach County court has ruled that Rodrigo's insurance policy did not cover cases of corpse explosion. Although the State Farm policy did address damage from explosions, according to the court "[t]he plain meaning of the term 'explosion' does not include a decomposing body's cells explosively expanding, causing leakage of bodily fluids."
Unfortunately for Rodrigo and any chance she may have on appeal, this is probably right.
First, an insurance policy is just a contract, and unless there's reason to do otherwise, courts try to interpret the language of a contract according to the word's plain meaning. They ask what the common understanding of a given word or phrase is if used in conversation. In the case of "explosion," generally we consider fire, shock waves and some form of detonation, not pressure building up inside a corpse.
More importantly, from the perspective of an insurance policy, you are covered only against the damage that the actual explosion causes. If the neighbor had burst so violently that her body was propelled through the floor to come crashing onto Rodrigo's kitchen table, she might have a claim (along with years of therapy). However even if the court had accepted the idea that a corpse bursting does count as an explosion, that didn't cause the damage. The damage and consequent smell came from a secondary effect: fluid leakage.
In other words, this is more properly a claim for flood insurance.
It has to be flood insurance since the fluid damage came from outside Rodrigo's home. A standard homeowner's or property policy will cover you in case of internal leakage (like a pipe bursting), but as a general rule they stop at the front door. If the damaging fluids come from outside of the home, normal property insurance leaves off and flood insurance kicks in.
Admittedly flood insurance more often conjures up images of low bid levees than lonely old woman, which may be why so few of us have it. Only about 18% of Americans have an insurance policy which would (maybe) cover them in a case like this, and that's probably why Rodrigo is trying to turn this into the Palm Beach equivalent of an IED. As a rule, we're more likely to be covered in case of a terrorist bombing than particularly heavy rains.
This doesn't mean that we're all screwed in case an upstairs neighbor gets particularly careless. If you own a condo and someone lets the shower flood one floor up, the solution is to knock on their door with a bill. If they don't have enough money to pay though, what lawyers call the judgment proof defendant, that might be a problem.
For those cases it might be worth looking into flood insurance. Because this happens more often than you'd think.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.