Insurance Coverage for Wrongful Incarceration Cases in New York

Over a decade has gone by since we first reported on an uptick in post-conviction exonerations due to advances in DNA testing, data preservation and electronic record-keeping that led to the discovery of exculpatory evidence. Today, insurance coverage lawsuits for wrongful incarceration cases are becoming more and more frequent. Typically, such cases involve a scenario in which the underlying claimant is arrested, tried and sentenced for a crime and then subsequently, the underlying claimant is either acquitted or released due to new evidence, lack of evidence or procedural mishaps in the initial trial. While more and more states are instituting statutory remedies for wrongful incarceration, the municipality and its law enforcement and prosecutorial entities are still sued for state tort claims and federal civil rights violations. The insured defendants, in turn, tender the matters to their carriers under general liability policies, errors and omissions policies and law enforcement liability policies.

This series of blog posts with discuss the law in various jurisdictions that have addressed coverage issues related to wrongful incarceration under different types of policies. The first jurisdiction we address is New York.

There are two pertinent New York cases that address coverage issues for claims of false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. The first is National Cas. Ins. Co. v. City of Mount Vernon, 128 A.D.2d 332 (1987). In City of Mount Vernon, the underlying claimant was arrested in June 1981 and incarcerated until January 7, 1983. Thereafter, the underlying claimant commenced a lawsuit against the City of Mount Vernon (“City”) and the Mount Vernon Police Department to recover damages for, among other things, false arrest and false imprisonment.

National Casualty issued a policy to the City from January 1, 1983 to January 1, 1984, that provided coverage for all sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of “wrongful acts” which result in “personal injury” caused by an “occurrence.” The term “occurrence” was defined as an event, including continuous or repeated exposure to conditions, which results in “personal injury” during the policy period. The term “personal injury” was defined to include false arrest, detention or imprisonment, or malicious prosecution. Based on the above definitions, the National Casualty policy would be triggered by false arrest, detention or imprisonment during the policy period.

Upon tender, National Casualty denied coverage because the underlying claimant’s arrest in June 1981 occurred prior to the policy’s inception date of January 1, 1983. The Appellate Division disagreed:

Contrary to National’s contentions, the language of the occurrence clause herein ascribes no temporal relevance to the causative event preceding the covered injury, but rather premises coverage exclusively upon the sustaining of specified injuries during the policy period. Thus, the pertinent policy provision provides coverage for an “occurrence”, and thereafter, states that an occurrence “means an event … which results in PERSONAL INJURY … sustained, during the policy period” (emphasis supplied). Indeed, as one commentator has stated in discussing a similar provision, “[t]he policy will not depend upon the causative event of occurrence but will be based upon injuries or damages which result from such an event and which happened during the policy period. It will not be material whether the causative event happened during or before the policy period.” … Accordingly, the operative event triggering exposure, and thus resulting in coverage under the policy, is the sustaining of a specified injury during the policy period. 336-337. The Appellate Division held that damage resulting from false imprisonment represented a category of covered personal injury, and that such damage was allegedly sustained, at least in part, when the policy was in force, i.e. from January 1, 1983 to January 7, 1983. As a result, the City was entitled to coverage under the National Casualty policy.

The second case is Town of Newfane v. General Star National Ins. Co., 14 A.D.3d 72, 784 N.Y.S.2d 787 (2004). Selective Insurance (“Selective”) issued a policy, effective April 26, 2000, that provided coverage for claims for damages because of “personal injury” caused by an offense arising out of the Town of Newfane’s business, but only if the offense was committed during the policy period. The term “personal injury” was defined, in part, as “injury, other than ‘bodily injury’ arising out of one or more of the following offenses: a. [f]alse arrest, detention or imprisonment; [or] b. [m]alicious prosecution.”

The underlying claimant alleged that he was “charged, arrested and jailed under a warrant” on June 7, 1989. He was again jailed for several hours on April 9, 1990. On June 6, 1990, he was convicted of 36 counts of violating Town Law and zoning ordinance. He was sentenced and remanded to jail on July 23, 1990. He was then discharged from custody later that day and the judgment of conviction was reversed on appeal on July 2, 1991, at which time all but one count was dismissed. The criminal prosecution on that one remaining count remained dormant until November 28, 2000, when his motion to dismiss for lack of speedy trial was granted.

The underlying claimant sued the Town of Newfane for malicious prosecution, false arrest, and false imprisonment, among other claims. Initially, the Appellate Division noted that the “offenses” of false imprisonment and false arrest were “committed” outside the Selective policy’s effective date of April 26, 2000. The only issue before the court was whether there was coverage for the malicious prosecution claim “where the criminal prosecution was initiated before the effective date of the policy but terminated in favor of the accused during the policy period.” The Appellate Division concluded, based on the language of the policy, that as a matter of law, there was no coverage for an underlying malicious prosecution cause of action because the date of the commencement of the underlying criminal prosecution was the controlling date for purposes of insurance coverage. The Appellate Division explained that

… the “offense” of malicious prosecution was “committed”, for purposes of determining the issue of insurance coverage, in 1989, more than a decade before the effective date of the Selective policy. That “offense was committed” when the prosecution was instituted, allegedly without probable cause. Such initiation of the criminal prosecution is the essence or gist of the tort of malicious prosecution. Moreover, the legal injury or “offense” incurred by the plaintiff in the underlying action (albeit not necessarily the damages incurred as a result of that “offense”) is the same irrespective of whether the criminal prosecution was known to be baseless when it was initiated or only subsequently demonstrated to be lacking in merit. Therefore, the injury to the accused was contemporaneous with the initiation of the criminal proceeding against him and hence complete long before the inception of coverage and the incidental termination of the criminal prosecution. We thus conclude that, for purposes of determining insurance coverage, malicious prosecution is not a continuing tort. We further conclude that the policy is to be construed as “fixing the point of coverage for malicious prosecution at one readily ascertainable date; the date on which the acts [we]re committed that [might] result in ultimate liability” or “when the alleged tortfeasor t[ook the] action resulting in the application of the [s]tate’s criminal process to the [plaintiff in the underlying action]”.….

Id. at 75-80 (internal citations omitted).

The Appellate Division acknowledged that a malicious prosecution claim may be premised on the initiation or continuation of a criminal proceeding without probable cause, and such claim does not accrue for purposes of the statute of limitations until the ultimate dismissal or favorable termination of the criminal charges. The Appellate Division further recognized that the damages incurred by reason of the continuation of a criminal prosecution might continue. Nevertheless, the court held that none of these considerations were determinative as the policy language focused on when the offense was committed, not when an action could have been brought or damages fully ascertained.

The New York courts emphasize construing and applying the policy language and considering whether false imprisonment, false arrest and malicious prosecution are deemed as “personal injury” or “offense” and whether the injury or the offense is required to happen during the policy period.

The next installment will review the law in California. In the meantime, if there are any questions about another jurisdiction, please contact us and we can address your questions directly.