Debts for Willful and Malicious Injury

Our bankruptcy laws were enacted to provide debtors with the opportunity for a fresh start. But what if the debts you incurred were the result of intentional acts of misbehavior, even criminal acts? What if you assaulted someone, or if you were grossly negligent and caused serious injury to another person? Should you be able to rid yourself of that obligation by filing for bankruptcy protection?

From a long time, certain debts, for “willful and malicious injury,” have not been eligible for discharge. For almost the entire 20th century (from 1904 to 1998), the “willful and malicious” exception was liberally applied. If it could be shown that the act or behavior was intentional, the debtor could not discharge the obligation.

In 1998, though, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified what was malicious or willful. In Kawaahuau v. Geiger, the debtor was a doctor who was found liable for malpractice and filed for bankruptcy protection because he had no malpractice insurance. The question was whether his intentionally or recklessly not carrying such insurance, leading to an inability to collect for his medical negligence made the malpractice judgment non dischargeable. The Supreme Court said no: “nondischargeability takes a deliberate or intentional injury, not merely a deliberate or intentional act that leads to injury”. Other courts, including the Third Circuit Court of Appeals have said that an act done intentionally which is substantially certain to cause injury, and for which there is no justification or excuse will be treated as willful and malicious. In other words, an intent to cause harm can be inferred and proven form such circumstances.

The “willful and malicious” exception does not apply to mere carelessness. But intentional torts (eg assault or battery, theft) or some act that is illegal will most likely fall within it.

This is something you should discuss with a qualified bankruptcy attorney.

Contact Neuner & Ventura, LLP

We understand the stress, anxiety and confusion that can be associated with a potential bankruptcy filing. We offer a free initial consultation to every client. For an appointment, call Neuner & Ventura at 856-596-2828 or send us an e-mail. We do, however, reserve the right to charge a fee to review any work done by another attorney. Evening and weekend appointments are available upon request.

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