The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a federal court in Mississippi ruling that insurer’s defense obligation was triggered because their policies provided coverage for bodily injuries that occur during their respective coverage periods, regardless of when the acts that caused the injuries took place. Travelers Indemnity Co., et al. v. Forrest County, et al., Case No. 17-60291 (5th Cir. May 29, 2019).
In 1980 three men were sentenced to prison for the rape and murder of a woman based upon coerced confessions obtained through death threats and violence. While incarcerated, all three men were victims of numerous assaults by other prisoners resulting in physical injuries and contraction of various diseases. In 2010, the men were exonerated by DNA evidence which had been tested by the Innocence Project. The estates of the three men sued the county and city whose police arrested and prosecuted the prisoners and several individual officers for civil rights violations. The underlying civil rights suit was settled and this appeal arose out of a preservation of rights to appeal the issue of the insurers’ duty to defend.
For the years 2005 through 2011, the County had purchased law enforcement liability policies from two insurers. Both insurers argued that they were not obligated to fund the defense because the officers’ alleged wrongful acts against the three wrongfully convicted men occurred before the policies took effect. One policy stated that there was coverage for certain emotional and physical injuries that happen “while the policy is in effect,” without specifying if the actual wrongful act must occur in the same time period. The other policy was not quite as clear, but the Fifth Circuit concluded that it could be read to provide the same scope of coverage as the other policy. As a result, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment that because injuries to the plaintiffs occurred during the policy periods the policies provided coverage and owed a duty to defend.