The third jurisdiction we address pertaining to wrongful incarceration coverage issues is New Jersey, which has three relevant cases. New Jersey courts have held that for purposes of determining the existence of insurance coverage under a general liability policy, in the absence of any applicable exclusion, the triggering event occurs on the date when the underlying criminal complaint is filed against the claimant. However, when determining coverage for a municipal insured’s obligation to indemnify its employee for fees incurred in defending against criminal charges, as required by specific statutes, the triggering event is not the filing of criminal charges against the employee, but rather the acquittal or dismissal of those charges against the employee.
The first of the malicious prosecution cases is Muller Fuel Oil Co. v. Ins. Co. of North America, 232 A.2d 168 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1967), in which the insured, Muller Fuel Oil Company (“Muller”), unsuccessfully filed a criminal complaint against Thomas Policastro (“Policastro”) for issuing a worthless check. Policastro was arrested in November 1961 and indicted in May 1962. In December 1962, Muller purchased a CGL policy from Insurance Company of North America (“INA”). Thereafter, in March 1963, Policastro was acquitted of the criminal charges and quickly filed a malicious prosecution and false arrest suit against Muller.
Muller sought coverage from INA, claiming that Policastro’s lawsuit against it did not fully ripen until his acquittal in March 1963, and thus constituted an “occurrence” during INA’s policy period of December 1, 1962 to December 1, 1965. INA, on the other hand, denied coverage for Muller’s claim, contending that the criminal complaint that was the basis for Policastro’s malicious prosecution suit was filed by Muller prior to inception of the INA policy. Muller then sought a declaratory judgment that coverage existed under the policy.
On appeal from a New Jersey Superior Court ruling dismissing Muller’s complaint against INA, the Appellate Division affirmed the decision, finding that “[i]n a claim based on malicious prosecution the damage begins to flow from the very commencement of the tortious conduct – the making of the criminal complaint.” According to the Appellate Division, the allegedly tortious conduct and injury to the accused as a result of the malicious prosecution (arrest on November 1961) antedated the issuance of the policy (December 1, 1962) by more than year. As a result, there was no coverage under the INA policy.
The second malicious prosecution case is Paterson Tallow Co. v. Royal Globe Ins. Co. 89 N.J. 24, 444 A.2d 579 (1981). In Paterson, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court that insurer Royal Globe Insurance Company (“Royal Globe”) was not obligated to defend the insured, Paterson Tallow Company (“Paterson”), because the complaint that resulted in the malicious prosecution action against Paterson was filed before the effective date of Royal Globe’s policy.
In Paterson, Paterson filed criminal charges in June 1969 against a former employee, James Brown (“Brown”), for theft. In October 1970, while the criminal charges were pending, Paterson purchased a CGL policy that provided coverage for bodily injury, property damage, and personal injury, including coverage for malicious prosecution. In March 1971, Brown was acquitted of all charges against him. Brown filed suit against Paterson in January 1977 alleging malicious prosecution, and Paterson tendered the claim to Royal Globe seeking coverage. Royal Globe denied coverage for the claim, in part, because “all the acts that were alleged to constitute malicious prosecution took place before the policy was issued in 1970.” In a subsequent declaratory judgment action, Paterson and Royal filed cross motions for summary judgment and Paterson asserted that it was entitled to coverage for the action because a crucial component of the malicious prosecution offense, specifically, termination of the criminal charges against Brown, occurred during Royal Globe’s policy period.
The trial court found the appellate court’s ruling in Muller (discussed above) dispositive and granted summary judgment in favor of Royal Globe. On appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that “for the purpose of determining the existence of coverage under this type of policy, in the absence of any qualifying exclusion or exception the offense of malicious prosecution occurs on the date when the underlying [criminal] complaint is filed. Inasmuch as the [criminal complaint] in this case was filed before the effective date of the policy, we affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division denying coverage.”
The third case is slightly different in that it addressed coverage for an insured’s obligation to indemnify its employee for fees and costs the employee incurred defending against criminal charges against him that were ultimately found to be meritless. In Board of Education v. Utica Mut. Ins. Co., 798 A.2d 605 (N.J. 2002), the New Jersey Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether it was the filing of criminal charges against an employee of a board of education, or the acquittal of dismissal of those charges, that triggered coverage under an insurance policy issued to satisfy the board’s statutory obligation to indemnify such employee. The trial court found that the triggering event was the acquittal or dismissal while the appellate court reversed and decided that the triggering event was the filing of criminal charges. On appeal, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the triggering event is the acquittal or other disposition of the criminal charges in favor of the employee of the board of education.
This case involved a teacher, David Ford (“Ford”), employed by the Borough of Florham Park Board of Education (“Board”), who was arrested and charged with sexual assault and reckless endangerment of four of his students in June 1996. In March 1999, a jury acquitted Ford of all charges. Soon after, he demanded that the Board reimburse him nearly $500,000 in legal fees and expenses for successfully defending the criminal action pursuant to various New Jersey statutes that “…obligate a board of education to defray all costs incurred by an … employee of the board in defending criminal charges filed against the person whose charges: … (2) resulted in a final disposition in favor of such person.” The statute also authorized a board to purchase insurance to cover all such damages, losses and expenses the board may be obligated to pay.
The Board sought coverage from Selective Insurance Company (“Selective”) and Utica Mutual Insurance Company (“Utica”) for its indemnity obligation to Ford. At the time of Ford’s arrest, the Board was insured by Selective under a policy that provided coverage from July 1, 1993 to July 1, 1996. By endorsement, the Selective policy provided that “this Coverage Part shall conform to the terms of the New Jersey compiled statutes” discussed above. Utica insured the Board from July 1, 1996 to July 1, 1999, and contained a nearly identical endorsement provision as the Selective policy, incorporating the pertinent New Jersey statutes. Utica denied coverage to the Board because its policy was not in effect when Ford was criminally charged in June 1996. Selective denied coverage for any legal expenses that were incurred after its policy expired on July 1, 1996, and reserved the right to deny all coverage. The Board filed a declaratory judgment action against Selective and Utica.
The trigger issue was appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Court noted that both the Selective and Utica policies incorporated by reference the statutory language, which specified that an employee’s right to reimbursement accrues when “the criminal charges result in an acquittal or otherwise are dismissed.” The Court also noted that indemnification obligations generally accrue “only on an event fixing liability, rather than on preliminary events that eventually may lead to liability but have not yet occurred.” The Court held that the triggering event for coverage was the favorable disposition of all criminal charges against Ford. As a result, Utica’s policy was triggered since Ford incurred no reimbursable expenses prior to his acquittal. On the other hand, Selective had no coverage obligation as the Selective policy had expired by the time of Ford’s acquittal.
The Court distinguished its holding in Paterson and explained that when an insured seeks coverage related to its own conduct of initiating criminal charges against its employee, it is reasonable to use the conduct of the insured in filing the criminal charges as the “triggering event” to assess coverage for malicious prosecution. But in a statutory indemnification case, the “essence” of the claim is not the filing of the criminal charges.” Rather, the Board’s liability “is triggered by the event specified in the statutes, namely a final disposition of those charges in favor of the Board’s employee.”
In light of the cases discussed above, the New Jersey courts are fairly clear that the trigger of coverage in malicious prosecution and wrongful arrest cases is the filing of charges against the claimant. However, in cases involving coverage for statutory indemnification of fees and costs incurred in defending against a criminal prosecution case, the trigger of coverage is not filing of charges, but rather, acquittal of such charges. As is always the case, it is important to carefully review the applicable policy and understand the scope of coverage provided.