Over the past 18 months, we have examined numerous states’ approaches to insurance coverage for underlying claims of wrongful incarceration and malicious prosecution.
Last summer, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, interpreting Ohio law, weighed in on this issue. Selective Ins. Co. v. RLI Ins. Co., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 16327 (6th Cir. Aug. 24, 2017). The Sixth Circuit ruled that the district court erred in finding an excess insurer liable for a settlement of an underlying malicious prosecution claim arising out of a claimant’s wrongful conviction. The court concluded that coverage was not triggered because the claim did not occur until several months after the policy period expired, when police withheld new exculpatory evidence from the wrongfully convicted claimant and there was no longer probable cause for the claimant’s arrest and prosecution.
In Selective, “Insurer A” issued an excess policy to the City of Barberton (“City”) from June 29, 1997 to June 29, 1998, and “Insurer B” issued an excess policy to the City from June 29, 1998 to June 29, 1999. The underlying claimant, who was exonerated of rape and murder based on DNA evidence after spending several years in jail, sued the City and its police officers, alleging violations of state law and his federal constitutional rights. All claims against the City were dismissed. The surviving claims against the individual officers included a § 1983 claim for a violation of due process based on the officers’ failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, and state law claims of malicious prosecution and loss of consortium. Specifically, the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, i.e., the Brady violation, involved an inter-departmental memorandum that a police officer drafted identifying a suspect in two other aggravated robberies as the likely suspect in the claimant’s rape and murder case. The civil case settled for $5.25 million, to which Insurer B contributed $3.25 million. Insurer A denied coverage, claiming that the malicious prosecution of the claimant did not “occur” during its policy period.
As part of the settlement, Insurer B took an assignment of rights from the insured and filed suit against Insurer A for a declaration of coverage under Insurer A’s policy. Insurer B argued on summary judgment that the malicious prosecution of the claimant “occurred” when the charges were filed against the claimant on June 11, 1998. As a result, coverage was triggered under Insurer A’s policy, whose policy period ended on June 29, 1998. Insurer A also moved for summary judgment, arguing that the tort of malicious prosecution occurred at the time of the Brady violation, which occurred in January 1999, six months after its policy expired.
The district court disagreed with Insurer A, stating that although the January 1999 concealment of exculpatory evidence was enough on its own for the claimant’s malicious prosecution claim, there was also evidence of wrongdoing by the police officers during the earlier policy period, such as the dismissal of alibi witnesses and a DNA mismatch. Therefore, the claimant may have had a viable malicious prosecution claim even prior to the alleged Brady violation, during the first policy period. The district court then relied on what it called the “majority rule” from other jurisdictions as to trigger of coverage for malicious prosecution claims, holding that coverage for such claims is triggered at the time that the underlying charges are filed. Because the claimant was first arrested during the first policy period, the court ruled that Insurer A owed coverage and had to reimburse Insurer B.
On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, Insurer A again argued that it was not liable for the excess liability claim because no tort occurred during the policy. The Sixth Circuit agreed, concluding that the district court erred in finding Insurer A liable for the settlement. According to the court, because there was probable cause to prosecute and detain the claimant until exculpatory evidence came into existence, the officers’ actions before the exculpatory evidence came into existence could not have caused a covered loss under the RLI policy. The court explained that under Ohio law, malicious prosecution requires the instituting or continuing of prosecution without probable cause. In Ohio, a claimant can recover for a prosecution that was not malicious at its inception, but became malicious later, when it continued without probable cause. The key issue is whether there was probable cause and when such probable cause disappeared. The court determined that in the underlying matter, the City and police officers had probable cause until the alleged Brady violation, such that the malicious prosecution and the deprivation of due process could only have occurred in January 1999, after expiration of Insurer A’s policy period. Therefore, the court concluded that under the plain language of the policy, the police officers’ liability to claimant was not covered under Insurer A’s policy.
The Sixth Circuit distinguished the district court’s “majority rule” based upon the policy language at issue in Insurer A’s policy and because none of the cases relied upon dealt with a situation like claimant’s case, “where the injury—i.e., the filing of charges—occurred before any tortious activity, and therefore could not have been caused by the tortious activity.”
This case demonstrates the importance of carefully analyzing the specific elements of a malicious prosecution claim in a particular jurisdiction, as well as the specific policy language at issue. Such careful analysis translates to a predictable conclusion in trigger of coverage for wrongful incarceration cases.