THE TRAVELERS INDEMNITY COMPANY; THE TRAVELERS INDEMNITY COMPANY OF AMERICA; UNITED STATES FIDELITY AND GUARANTY COMPANY; ST. PAUL FIRE; MARINE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiffs - Appellants
ETHEL MITCHELL, Executrix of the Estate of Phillip Bivens; THE ESTATE OF LARRY RUFFIN; THE ESTATE OF BOBBY RAY DIXON; LATURAS SMITH; CARRIE STRONG, Defendants - Counter Plaintiffs - Counter Defendants - Appellees
SCOTTSDALE INSURANCE COMPANY Counter Defendant - Counter Plaintiff - Appellant
Appeals from the United States District Court for the
Southern District of Mississippi
HIGGINBOTHAM, SOUTHWICK and COSTA, Circuit Judges.
COSTA, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Bivens, Bobby Ray Dixon, and Larry Ruffin spent a collective
83 years in prison for the rape and murder of a woman in
Forrest County, Mississippi. Their confessions were coerced
and evidence against them fabricated. They were innocent.
time DNA evidence exonerated them, Ruffin had died in prison
while Dixon and Bivens had developed diseases that killed
them not long after they gained the freedom to which they
were always entitled. Their estates filed a civil rights
lawsuit against Forrest County.
question in this separate case is whether two of the
County's law enforcement liability policies require the
insurers to defend the civil rights suit. The answer turns on
whether the policies are triggered when injuries occur during
the policy period, even though the wrongful acts that caused
the injuries occurred before the policy period. The district
court held there is a duty to defend. We agree.
first tragedy occurred in May 1979 when Eva Gail Patterson, a
25-year-old mother of two, was raped and murdered in her
home. Her two sons watched her die.
second tragedy began when officers of the Forrest County
Sherriff's Department targeted Larry Ruffin for the
crime. Ruffin was then an inmate at a restitution center,
where he was working to compensate the victim of a minor
theft. The day after the murder, Forrest County officers
confronted him-one threatened to kill him-then locked him in
the Forrest County jail for two days. Soon after, a
Hattiesburg Police officer threatened another inmate at the
restitution center with false charges unless he implicated
Ruffin in the murder. Once armed with the fabricated
statement, police arrested Ruffin.
evening, Forrest County and Hattiesburg officers "beat,
punched, kicked, slapped, and hurled racial slurs and death
threats at Larry Ruffin, demanding that he confess to the
crime." It took seven hours to secure his confession.
victim's young son had told the police that there was
only one perpetrator. But in the fall of 1980, as
Ruffin's trial was approaching, police arrested Bobby Ray
Dixon and Phillip Bivens. Dixon, who had previously been
arrested with Ruffin for theft, was mentally handicapped as a
result of being kicked in the head by a horse as a child.
After succumbing to beatings and threats of the death
penalty, he confessed, implicating himself, Ruffin, and
wife was related to Ruffin's girlfriend. Bivens was a
native Californian who spent less than a year in Forrest
County-but that year included May 1979. After being arrested
in California and flown back to Mississippi, he too was
threatened with violence and death. He too confessed.
their coerced confessions, Bivens and Dixon pleaded guilty.
Ruffin was convicted at trial. All three got life sentences.
In prison, they were the victims of numerous assaults by
other prisoners. Each developed physical injuries and
maladies, including Ruffin's infection with syphilis and
herpes in 1984-85, and Bivens's contraction of Hepatitis
C in 2007. They filed postconviction appeals asserting their
innocence, but each was rejected.
contacted the Innocence Project in 2008, and the Project
obtained DNA testing of the sperm from the victim's rape
kit. It matched the DNA profile of Andrew Harris, who was
then serving a life sentence for another rape committed
shortly after the rape and murder for which Bivens, Dixon,
and Ruffin were incarcerated.
had been killed by an electrical shock eight years before he
was exonerated. Dixon died shortly after being released on
medical parole but five weeks before he was officially
cleared. Bivens lived just three more years as a free man.
estates sued Forrest County, the City of Hattiesburg, and
several individual officers for civil rights violations,
including coercing confessions, fabricating evidence,
withholding exculpatory evidence, and prosecuting without
probable cause. Over the years, Forrest County had purchased
a series of law enforcement liability policies from various
insurers. As relevant to this case, a Scottsdale Insurance
Company policy was effective from November 1985 through
November 1986, and St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company
policies were effective from February 2005 through February
Indemnity Company (which is responsible for the St. Paul
policies) sued for a declaratory judgment that it does not
owe a duty to defend Forrest County from the civil rights
claims. The estates brought counterclaims against Scottsdale
in the ensuing litigation. The district court rejected a duty
to defend for a number of insurers with policies in effect
during the period of incarceration. But, on cross-motions for
summary judgment, it ruled that Travelers and Scottsdale do
owe duties to defend. Those two insurers appeal.
review the district court's grant of summary judgment de
novo. Admiral Ins. Co. v. Ford, 607 F.3d 420, 422
(5th Cir. 2010). The court's interpretation of an
insurance policy is a question of law that we also review de
requires that insurance policies be interpreted "exactly
as written," so long as they are "clear and
unambiguous." George v. Mississippi Farm Bureau Mut.
Ins. Co., 168 So.2d 530, 531 (Miss. 1964). If the
policy's terms are ambiguous or doubtful, we interpret
them "most favorably to the insured and against the
insurer." Centennial Ins. Co. v. Ryder Truck Rental,
Inc., 149 F.3d 378, 382-83 (5th Cir. 1998).
applies the so-called eight corners rule to determine whether
an insurer has a duty to defend a claim against its insured.
That is, the question is resolved by comparing the four
corners of the policy with the four corners of the complaint.
Auto Ins. Co. of Hartford v. Lipscomb, 75 So.3d 557,
559 (Miss. 2011). If the complaint states a claim that is
"within or arguably within the scope of coverage
provided by the policy," the insurer must defend.
Am. Guarantee & Liab. Ins. Co. v. 1906 Co., 273
F.3d 605, 610 (5th Cir. 2001); see also Lipscomb, 75
So.3d at 559 (explaining that insurers must defend claims
that could "potentially" be covered).
begin with the terms of the policies. And because their
language differs, we discuss each separately.
Travelers policy provided Forrest County and its officers
with law enforcement liability coverage from February 2005
through February 2011. Its relevant terms follow:
Law enforcement liability. We'll pay
amounts any protected person is legally required to pay as
damages for covered injury or damage that:
• results from law enforcement activities or operations
by or for you;
• happens while this agreement is in effect; and
• is caused by a wrongful act that is committed while
conducting law ...