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FMG Law Blog Line

Third Circuit Rules Against the City of Williamsport in Lawsuit Filed Against Insurance Companies Based on Law Enforcement Policy Coverage

Posted on: June 14th, 2019

By: Michelle Yee

In 2015, there was major news coverage that a former Williamsport police officer pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and several other charges. This case stems from a fatal automobile accident that occurred between James David Robinson and a Williamsport police officer. The officer was traveling at 101 mph with emergency lights and sirens activated on East Third Street, which has a 35-mph limit. The officer then passed three vehicles, including Robinson’s, and crashed into Robinson’s vehicle which burst into flames when it struck against a utility pole. Robinson’s mother sued the City and the police officer for the officer’s negligence and recklessness, which caused the fatal collision and death of Robinson. After the City unsuccessfully moved to dismiss the constitutional claims, this matter settled for $1,000,000.

The City filed a lawsuit against CNA Insurance and National Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, both of which has a $1 million limit, for refusing to provide more than $500,000 in total to cover for the settlement. This case, City of Williamsport v. CNA Insurance Companies and National Fire Insurance Company of Hartford, was recently heard before the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The Defendants argued that their liability under the Automobile Policy is limited to $500,000 because the policy covers the “sums [the City] legally must pay as damages” and Pennsylvania law caps the state law tort liability against local agencies at $500,000. The Court rejected this argument and ruled that Defendants cannot dismiss this matter based on the City’s Automobile Policy because the state tort law does not place a liability cap for federal claims against the officer, which must be indemnified by the City. The court agreed with the City.

The City of Williamsport then argued that the Law Enforcement Policy’s coverage for civil rights violation should apply to this settlement. On the other hand, Defendants argued that the policy’s automobile exclusion precludes coverage. The Court held for the Defendants. It reasoned that the City sought to hold the office liable for his conduct while driving and the city is responsible for its supervision and training of its officers. Further, the court interpreted the language of the Law Enforcement Policy, as excluding coverage for damages arising out of the operation of any automobiles in the course of employment. Therefore, the Court dismissed the City’s claims to seek recovery under this policy because the damages were proximately caused by an automobile.

The Court finally dismissed the City’s insurance bad faith claim holding that the City did not allege that the Defendants “knew or recklessly disregarded the lack of reasonable basis when denying the City’s claims,” as required by law. However, the Court noted that this dismissal is without prejudice and the City may amend its Complaint to cure this deficiency.

For more information, please contact Michelle Yee at [email protected].

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