In a notable deviation from decisions across the country,
the Fifth Circuit recently ruled that injuries from false imprisonment could be
sustained after the actual false imprisonment itself ended, triggering two insurers’
duty to defend. Travelers Indem. Co. v.
Mitchell, No. 17-60291, 2019 WL 2276694 (5th Cir. May 29, 2019).
The insurers, whose policies did not come into existence until after the false imprisonment ended, were found obligated to defend a Mississippi County in a civil rights lawsuit stemming from the wrongful conviction of three men for a 1979 rape and murder. All three of the men were convicted at trial in the fall of 1980 on the strength of coerced confessions. They each received life sentences.
It wasn’t until 2008 that DNA evidence revealed that the crime had been committed by a different man who was serving a life sentence for a separate rape. Unfortunately, two of the wrongfully convicted men had died by the time their names were cleared, and the third lived only three years after being freed.
The estates of the three men sued Mississippi County for
civil rights violations. The county had purchased law enforcement liability
policies from various insurers over the years, and sought coverage under
policies covering the entire period of the men’s incarcerations. Coverage
litigation ensued. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the
county regarding two of the policies issued, and the insurers appealed. On
appeal, the Fifth Circuit applied the “eight corners” rule, comparing the
provisions of the policy to the allegations of the underlying complaint to
determine whether there was any possibility of coverage based on the “plain
language” of the policies.
For both policies, the parties agreed that the injuries
alleged in the civil rights complaint were caused by a wrongful act in pursuit
of law enforcement activities. However, the insurers argued that the wrongfully
convicted men could not have been injured by false imprisonment during their
policy periods, which fell long after the false imprisonment. The insurers cited
controlling precedent holding that false imprisonment ends once the victim
becomes held pursuant to such process.
However, unlike other policies which had been held not to provide coverage, the
policies did not require the wrongful act to take place during the policy
period – only that bodily injury resulting from the wrongful act be sustained
during the policy periods. They also did not include “deemer clauses.” The
court found that the complaint alleged numerous bodily injuries during the
policy periods, including physical illness and emotional distress. Thus, the
insurers had a duty to defend the civil rights lawsuit.
The court was careful to note that it was not applying
a “continuous trigger” or “multiple trigger” theory. Rather, it merely
interpreted the terms of the insurance policies themselves, which permitted
multiple triggers if there were different injuries
 Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 389