Pring-Wilson Redux: Insurance Coverage Shapes Litigation Strategies
The 2003 fatal altercation between Harvard graduate student Alexander Pring-Wilson and restaurant cook Michael Colono and the resulting criminal prosecution of Pring-Wilson received extensive media coverage. One aspect of the case that has flown under the radar is the litigation strategy in the civil suit, which appears to have been driven by efforts to obtain insurance coverage – or to avoid paying it out. Although these stratagems occurred in the context of personal homeowner’s and umbrella coverage, the civil suit illustrates how coverage-related issues – including policy exclusions for intentional conduct, which are common to both commercial and personal policies – can shape litigation.
The facts of the case are straightforward. Colono and a friend yelled at Pring-Wilson as he was walking home from a club, and Pring-Wilson responded in kind. A fight followed. Pring-Wilson pulled a utility knife out of his pocket, opened it and began flailing at Colono. Colono suffered a fatal stab wound.
As described in a decision handed down by the Appeals Court last month, 81 Mass. App. Ct. 430, the civil complaint filed by Colono’s estate asserted multiple theories of liability against Pring-Wilson, including, presumably, some intentional torts. The estate elected, however, to try the case, jury-waived, solely on the theory that Pring-Wilson was negligent. That decision opened the door to a contributory negligence defense, and the trial judge in fact found that Colono was 50% negligent, and reduced the damages award proportionately. At the same time, however, proceeding solely on a negligence theory increased the likelihood that insurance coverage would be available for whatever verdict the estate obtained. Had the estate obtained a plaintiff’s verdict on a battery count, for example, any insurer that potentially provided coverage likely would have been able to disclaim based on an exclusion for intentional conduct. While insurance coverage may not be an issue where the defendant has assets to satisfy the judgment, Pring-Wilson was a graduate student who likely had exhausted whatever financial assets he had defending the criminal prosecution.
The appeal brought additional maneuvering, this time by the defense, which counter-intuitively argued that the judge should have found that Pring-Wilson acted intentionally, not negligently. Given that Pring-Wilson was being defended by counsel retained by his mother’s homeowner’s insurer, see Fire Insurance Exchange v. Pring-Wilson, F. Supp. 2d (D. Mass. 2011), (decided under Colorado law), it looks at first glance as though the insurer was trying to hang Pring-Wilson out to dry by characterizing his conduct as intentional – i.e., not covered. Indeed, if the estate had pursued both intentional and negligence theories of liability, defense counsel’s ethical obligations to Pring-Wilson might have prevented counsel from arguing that Pring-Wilson had acted intentionally, because winning that issue could have jeopardized insurance coverage. In the Pring-Wilson suit, however, the estate had taken the intentional theories of liability off the table. Therefore, the defense was free to argue that Pring-Wilson had acted intentionally, as the only consequence would have been to overturn the verdict, a goal on which Pring-Wilson’s and the insurer’s interests aligned.
In the end, the estate’s decision to trade reduced damages for a verdict based only on a negligence theory was vindicated, as the Appeals Court affirmed the trial judge’s ruling that Pring-Wilson had acted negligently (a further discussion of the Appeals Court’s decision can be found here). The broader take-away, however, is that insurance coverage issues need to be thought through early in the case, not after the verdict.
Posted In: Practice and Procedure