On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Ocean County.
Botter, Pressler and O'Brien. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, J.A.D.
The question raised by this appeal is whether campaign activities engaged in by a public office-holder seeking re-election are within the scope of the typical business-pursuits exclusion of a liability policy. We affirm the summary judgment entered by the Superior Court, Law Division, holding that this policy exclusion does not apply to reelection campaign activities.
In September 1980 plaintiff E. Kenneth Burdge held the constitutional office of County Clerk of Ocean County and was
then engaged in conducting his reelection campaign. A large billboard had been erected at the intersection of Routes 527 and 547 in Jackson Township by the Ocean County Republican Party urging the election of Burdge and other Republican Party candidates. For purposes of the issue before us, we assume that Burdge, if he did not himself erect the sign, nevertheless authorized its erection on his behalf.
On September 30, 1980, Frances Primiterra, while operating her vehicle, collided with another vehicle at that intersection. She and her husband, who sued per quod, commenced an action against the owner and driver of the other vehicle and against a group of other defendants, including Burdge. The theory of the cause of action against Burdge was that the campaign sign had been negligently erected in a manner which "obstructed, distracted and impaired" Primiterra's vision and hence that Burdge, on whose behalf and with whose authorization the sign had been placed, was responsible for her ensuing injury. Burdge called upon his carrier, defendant Excelsior Insurance Company, who had issued a homeowner's policy to him, to defend the action. Defendant disclaimed, relying on the business-pursuits exclusion. Burdge retained his own attorney to defend the Primiterra action and that action was dismissed as to him by summary judgment. Burdge then brought this action against defendant, claiming that it had been obligated to provide him with a defense to the Primiterra action and, having failed to fulfill that obligation, was liable to him for reimbursement of the legal expenses he had incurred in successfully defending it. The trial court, on Burdge's motion for summary judgment, concluded as a matter of law that the exclusion did not apply. Accordingly, it entered judgment in Burdge's favor in the amount of $6,245, representing the legal fees incurred by him both in the defense of the Primiterra action and in the prosecution of this action. See R. 4:42-9(a)(6). Defendant appeals only from the adjudication that it was obligated to defend Burdge in the Primiterra action. It does not challenge
either the reasonableness of the fees or its obligation to pay them in the event of coverage.
The policy issued by defendant to plaintiff included the following "plain language" liability coverage:
If a claim is made or a suit is brought against any insured for damages because of bodily injury or property damage to which this coverage applies, we will:
a. pay up to our limit of liability for the damages for which the insured is legally liable; and
b. provide a defense at our expense by counsel of our choice. We may make any investigation and settle any claim or suit that we decide is appropriate. Our obligation to defend any claim or suit ends when the amount we pay for damages ...