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Figueroa v. Hartford Insurance Co.

Decided: June 19, 1990.

LUCY FIGUEROA, ADMINISTRATRIX AD PROSEQUENDUM OF THE ESTATE OF JOSE FIGUEROA, AND LUCY FIGUEROA, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
HARTFORD INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County.

Michels, Deighan and Brochin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.

Michels

Plaintiff Lucy Figueroa, as administratrix ad prosequendum of the estate of Jose Figueroa and individually, appeals from a summary judgment of the Law Division entered in favor of defendant Hartford Insurance Company in this action to recover under an automobile insurance policy.

The facts giving rise to this appeal are not in dispute. In February 1982, Douglas Lynch (Lynch) struck and killed Jose Figueroa (decedent) with his automobile. In May 1982, Lynch was indicted and charged with murder in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-3, aggravated assault in violation of N.J. S.A. 2C:12-1b(1) and possession of a weapon without any explainable lawful purpose in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-3(e). Lynch was subsequently found guilty of manslaughter in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4b(2) and was sentenced to State Prison for ten years

with a three-year period of parole ineligibility. In August 1984, we affirmed Lynch's conviction and the sentence imposed in an unpublished opinion State v. Lynch, (A-2944-82T4). The New Jersey Supreme Court denied Lynch's petition for certification in February 1985. State v. Lynch, 101 N.J. 215, 501 A.2d 897 (1985).

At the time of the incident in question, Lynch was insured under an automobile insurance policy issued by defendant which contained the standard exclusion for intentional acts. Specifically, the insurance policy, in pertinent part, provided:

This policy does not apply . . . to bodily injury or property damage caused intentionally by or at the direction of the insured.

In March 1982, defendant learned of the incident and undertook an investigation. A non-waiver agreement was signed by the parties. Although there is some disagreement as to what steps defendant took to investigate the incident, defendant acquired newspaper articles, spoke to the police, acquired the names of three witnesses and spoke to Lynch's attorney. In June 1982, defendant disclaimed coverage on the basis of the intentional acts exclusion in the policy. Specifically, the disclaimer letter stated:

Your policy 79 GM 653042 under Section 1, Liability, Part 5 Exclusion states:

"this policy does not apply under Section I, Paragraph (b) to bodily injury or property damage caused intentionally by or at the direction of the insured."

Based on that Exclusion, we will be unable to provide you with any coverage under the above-mentioned policy.

We will, however, consider any new information you wish to present to us and will reconsider the matter after the charges presently pending against the insured are decided and/or when the official investigation becomes available to us.

In October 1982, plaintiff filed suit against Lynch seeking damages resulting from decedent's death. In December 1985, a default judgment was entered against Lynch in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $767,325.00 together with $289,964.76 in pre-judgment interest. Lynch subsequently assigned to plaintiff any and all rights and interest he had against defendant under his insurance policy as well as the judgment.

In April 1987, plaintiff instituted this action against defendant seeking to recover under Lynch's insurance policy the amount of the default judgment, together with the accrued interest. Plaintiff claimed that defendant breached its insurance contract with Lynch, negligently investigated and handled Lynch's case and breached the covenants of good faith and fair dealing implied in the insurance contract. After issue was joined, defendant moved for summary judgment. Judge Lintner in the Law Division held that voluntary manslaughter involves a criminal intent and, as such, defendant was not liable under the intentional acts exclusion clause of the insurance policy. The trial court also ruled that defendant's conduct during its investigation did not create coverage under principles of estoppel. Accordingly, summary judgment was granted in favor of defendant. This appeal followed.

I.

Plaintiff first contends that she is entitled to judgment under the holding in Ruvolo v. American Casualty Co., 39 N.J. 490, 189 A.2d 204 (1963), because "proof of the insured's incapacity to act in accordance with reason, will remove tortiously committed acts from the exclusionary provisions of the carrier's policy." In other words, plaintiff claims that Lynch was so overcome by passion when he committed the homicide that he was not acting "intentionally" within the meaning of the intentional acts exclusion clause of the policy. We disagree.

Preliminarily, we note that "[p]olicy provisions that exclude coverage for liability resulting from intentional wrongful acts are 'common,' are 'accepted as valid limitations,' and are consistent with public policy." Allstate Ins. Co. v. Malec, 104 N.J. 1, 6, 514 A.2d 832 (1986); Ruvolo v. American Casualty Co., supra, 39 N.J. at 496, 189 A.2d 204. In fact, it has been held that it is against public policy for an insurance carrier to provide coverage ...


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