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Seventh Circuit Permits Insurance Company to Deny Coverage of Civil Rights Claims

The city of Waukegan, Illinois had been issued two comprehensive general liability Insurance policies, effective November 1, 1991 to November 1, 1995. Both policies contained a “law enforcement liability provision,” providing that the insurer “would be obligated to pay by reason of errors, omissions or negligent acts arising out of the performance of the (insured’s) duties while acting as a law enforcement official or officer in the regular course of public employment.”

From November 1, 2006 to November 1, 2009 the city was similarly covered by St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company. Both policies covered the City on an “occurrence basis,” and included false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and other civil rights violations, so claims had to arise during the policy periods for there to be coverage.

In January of 2009 Bennie Starks filed a civil suit, which was tendered by Waukegan to Northfield and St. Paul. The lawsuit alleged that the city and several police officers “conspired to convict him of crimes he did not commit,” according to the court’s opinion. In November of 2009, Northfield and St. Paul filed a declaratory judgment action, asking for a court order that it has no duty to defend or indemnify the city for the Stark’s suit.

The court entered summary judgment on behalf of the insurer, and the city appealed.

One of the instances where an insurer can justifiably refuse coverage is when the underlying allegations accrue outside of the relevant policy period. Am. Safety Cas. Ins. Co. v. City of Waukegan, Ill., 678 F.3d 475, 477-79 (7th Cir. 2012.). Stark’s cause of action, according to his complaint, accrued in 1986, prior to the coverage period, when he claims he was falsely arrested. Likewise, since he was exonerated of that same charge that resulted from his conviction in March of 2006, Northfield and St. Paul would not be obligated to cover his claim.

Additionally, even the St. Paul Fire policy is of no help, since it was in force between November 1, 2006 and November, 2009. According to Illinois law, “the trigger date for a malicious prosecution claim…is the date of exoneration.” American Safety, 678 F.3d at 478, and since their policy also falls beyond the policy period, they are also not obligated to defend the lawsuit. See: Northfield Insurance Co. v. City of Waukegan, 701 F.3d 1124 (7th Cir. 2012).

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Related legal case

Northfield Insurance Co. v. City of Waukegan