On the evening of August 2, 2005, Latiffany Dunn slowed her car as she approached the intersection of Pearl and Washington Streets in Homer, Louisiana. As she came to a stop, a vehicle driven by Latonya Harris pulled up beside Dunn’s vehicle. Shatara Harris, Latonya’s sister, was a passenger in Latonya’s vehicle. Shatara got out of the car and approached Latiffany’s vehicle. The two women argued, and Shatara took a swing at Latiffany. As Shatara walked back to Latonya’s vehicle, Latiffany drove off and then circled back. As it passed by, Latiffany’s car clipped the open passenger door of Latonya’s vehicle. Shatara, who was attempting to get into the car at the same time, was injured when the door slammed closed against her. Latiffany did not stop her car, but instead drove to the Claiborne Parish Sheriff’s Department where she filed a report about the incident. A sheriff’s deputy interviewed Latiffany, transported her to the Homer Police Station, and then arrested her on a charge of aggravated second degree battery. Latiffany later pled guilty to simple battery. Shatara filed suit against Latiffany and her auto insurance carrier, U.S. Agencies Casualty Insurance Company, Inc. for damages arising from her injuries. U.S. Agencies filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Latiffany intentionally struck Latonya’s vehicle, which would have excluded coverage by the terms of the policy. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed U.S. Agencies from the suit; Shatara appealed.
Under Louisiana law, an insurer may limit the coverage it provides by the terms of its policy, but the insurer has the burden of proving that the facts and circumstances support the exclusion. Furthermore, “a summary judgment declaring a lack of coverage under an insurance policy is not appropriate unless there is no reasonable interpretation of the policy, when applied to the undisputed material facts, under which coverage could be provided.” The policy provision that U.S. Agencies pointed to excluded coverage for bodily injury or property damage “caused by an intentional act” or “caused … while engaged in the commission of a crime.” U.S. Agencies argued that Latiffany committed a crime (as established by her guilty plea to the battery charge) and also that she intentionally struck Latonya’s vehicle to injure Shatara.
With respect to the crime exclusion, the Second Circuit noted that the policy defined “crime” as “any felony or any action to flee from, evade or avoid arrest or detection by the police or other law enforcement agency” (emphasis added). The court concluded that the crime exception was inapplicable because Latiffany’s guilty plea to simple battery–a misdemeanor offense–did not fit the policy’s definition. Furthermore, the court explained that Latiffany’s guilty plea was not determinative as to her intent to strike Shatara. While a guilty plea from a criminal matter is admissible in a civil case, it is not conclusive evidence. The court acknowledged that “summary judgment is appropriate only if there is no factual dispute as to intent,” which, after reviewing the trial record, was “not the case here.” The court reasoned, “we cannot say as a matter of fact that the record shows [Latiffany] intended to hit either Latonya’s vehicle or Shatara with her vehicle… Even though Latiffany pled guilty to simple battery, we find that the record shows that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Latiffany’s actions constituted an intentional act.” Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
The Harris case reflects Louisiana’s position that “exclusionary provisions are to be strictly construed against the insurer with any ambiguity construed in favor of the insured.” Presumably, this is to help protect consumers who purchase insurance by preventing insurance companies from attempting to avoid coverage through vague language in the policy. Insurance companies will nevertheless put forth whatever arguments may be available to avoid payouts, so a plaintiff should always obtain experienced counsel when pursuing an auto accident or other claim where a defendant’s liablility policy is in place.
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