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The Travelers Indemnity Company v. Mitchell

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 29, 2019

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

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SOUTHWICK and COSTA, Circuit Judges.


         Phillip 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.

         By the 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.

         The 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.


         The 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.[1]

         The 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.

         That 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.

         The 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 Bivens.

         Bivens's 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.

         After 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.

         Dixon 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.

         Ruffin 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.

         The 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 2011.

         Travelers 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.


         We 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 novo. Id.

         Mississippi 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).

         Mississippi 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).


         We begin with the terms of the policies. And because their language differs, we discuss each separately.

         The 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 ...

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