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Insurers must defend county in wrongful conviction case

Posted On: May. 30, 2019 2:52 PM CST


A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld a lower court ruling and ruled a Travelers Cos. Inc. unit and Scottsdale Insurance Co. are obligated to defend a Mississippi county in a case where three men were wrongly convicted of murdering and raping a woman in 1979.

The insurers had contended they were not obligated under their law enforcement policies to defend Forrest County, whose county seat is in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for injuries that occurred before the policy period, according to the ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in The Travelers Indemnity Co. et al. v. Ethel Mitchell et al. v. Scottsdale Insurance Co.

In May 1979, 25-year old Eva Gail Patterson was raped and murdered in her home and her two sons watched her die, according to the ruling. After being beaten and threatened with the death penalty, Robby Ray Dixon, who was mentally handicapped as a result of being kicked in the head by a horse as a child, confessed to the crime and implicated himself, Larry Ruffin and Philip Bivens. Mr. Bivens also confessed after being threatened with violence and death.

In 2008, it was learned through DNA testing arranged by the New York-based Innocence Project that another man, who was then serving a life sentence for another rape committed shortly after Ms. Patterson’s rape and murder, matched the sperm from the crime.

The three men spent a collective 83 years in prison for the crime. Mr. Ruffin was killed by an electric shock eight years before he was exonerated, Mr. Dixon died shortly after being released on medical parole but five weeks before he was officially cleared, and Mr. Bivens lived three years as a free man before he died, according to the ruling.

Travelers Indemnity, a unit of the Travelers Cos. Inc., filed suit in U.S. District Court in Hattiesburg seeking a declaratory judgment it does not owe a duty to defend Forrest County. The men’s estates brought counterclaims against Scottsdale in the ensuing ligation.

The District Court held the insurers had duties to defend the county, which was upheld by a unanimous three-judge appeals court panel.

Forrest County and its officers were covered by policies issued by Travelers unit St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co., from February 2005 through February 2011.

 The ruling said the issue is whether the injuries suffered by Mr. Bivens and Mr. Dixon between 2005 and 2011 triggered a duty to defend “even though the wrongful causal acts occurred decades before.”

“Travelers argues that Bivens and Dixon could not have been injured by false imprisonment 25 years after their convictions because false imprisonment ends with the inception of legal process,” said the ruling.

“But unlike personal injury coverage, the focus of which is the list of covered causal torts, bodily injury coverage is not tethered to a list of casual events,” said the ruling. “The estates allege that Bivens and Dixon suffered numerous, independent harms between 2005 and 2011,” it said.

“But for Forrest County’s alleged wrongful acts – coerced confessions, fabricated evidence and suppressed evidence – Bivens and Dixon would have been free men and not suffered these physical and mental injuries. Because the complaint alleges several distinct injuries occurring during the policy period” Travelers has a duty to defend the county, the ruling said.

Scottsdale provides the county with law enforcement liability coverage from November 1985 through November 1986, according to the ruling.

“Although Scottsdale’s duty to defend was not triggered by the ongoing imprisonment, it was triggered by the discrete bodily injuries Bivens, Dixon, and Ruffin suffered as a result of the County’s wrongful acts that framed them,” said the decision, in affirming the lower court’s ruling.

Michael J. Abrams, a partner with Lathrop Gage LLP in Kansas City, Missouri, who represented the three men’s estates, said, “We are obviously pleased with the court’s ruling and hope this brings some closure to a very painful chapter in the history of Forrest County and the city of Hattiesburg and to these families.”

A Travelers spokesman had no comment, and Scottsdale’s attorney had no comment.

In 2017, a federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling in an insurer dispute and held that a Selective Insurance Group Inc. unit was obligated to pay $3.25 million of excess coverage in a settlement in connection with the wrongful arrest and conviction of an Ohio man for rape and murder.