Court Rules Insurer on the Hook for Underlying Damages for Wrongful Conviction Suit
After serving 28 years of a 70-year sentence for murder, William Virgil was exonerated in 2015. DNA evidence later led a Kentucky grand jury to dismiss the charges against Virgil in 2017.
Virgil’s next course of action was to sue the City of Newport, Kentucky along with the various police officers involved in his arrest and wrongful conviction. He alleged malicious prosecution, due process violation for fabricating evidence and failure to intervene, among others.
The City of Newport held three one-year insurance policies each including an identical law-enforcement liability provision through St. Paul Guardian Insurance Company.
The provision read: “We’ll pay amounts any protected person is legally required to pay as damages for covered injury or damage that: (1) results from law enforcement activities or operations by or for you; (2) happens while this agreement is in effect; and (3) is caused by a wrongful act that is committed while conducting law enforcement operations.”
As Newport understood, the above language stating the insurer would pay for damages for covered injury requires St. Paul to defend and indemnify Newport in the underlying Virgil claims.
However, St. Paul sought declaration from district court that it had no duty to defend or indemnify. It argued the law-enforcement liability provision would not cover Virgil’s personal injury complaints, because, according to St. Paul, the damage occurred years prior to the policies’ coverage periods. The district court granted St. Paul’s motion.
In appellate court, the Virgil claims were reviewed in depth, with a dispute over when the “covered injuries” occurred. St. Paul argued that the damages were incurred at arrest and conviction 33 years ago. Newport countered that the injuries and other damages incurred lasted throughout the wrongful incarceration, which included the years Newport held policies through St. Paul.
The court ruled in Newport’s favor.
Scorecard: St. Paul Guardian Insurance Company is on the hook for defense for the underlying Virgil claim.
Takeaway: As science and technology advance, DNA evidence has overturned wrongful conviction cases. Insurers should review policy language to prepare for potential suits rising in the public sector. &