No Duty to Defend Owed by Insurer in Teacher Abuse Case

On Monday April 7, 2014 Judge Thomas Thrash of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia ruled in favor of our client, National Casualty Company (“National Casualty”) in a declaratory judgment action arising out of extreme claims of teacher abuse. David Sawyer and I represent National Casualty. National Casualty Company v. Melanie Pickens, et al.

RP was a student at Hopewell Middle School in Atlanta from 2004-2007. She had been diagnosed with Down syndrome and suffered from other medical ailments. Melanie Pickens was her special education teacher. RP and her parents filed suit against Pickens asserting various state law claims and civil rights violations and alleged that Pickens had committed multiple shocking and offensive acts, such as:

  • Screaming at RP and the other children on a daily basis;
  • Burping in the faces of RP and the other children;
  • Shaking her breasts and pressing them on the faces of RP and the other children;
  • Pressing her buttocks into the faces of the faces of RP and the other children and passing gas;
  • Cursing at RP and the other children;
  • Often using vulgarities in front of RP and the other children;
  • Spraying RP with Lysol and putting her out in the hallway after RP passed gas in class.

RP alleged that those acts were committed “with deliberate indifference towards the rights of [RP] and with specific intent to injure her.”

National Casualty was an insurer for the Professional Association for Georgia Educators and defended this lawsuit under a reservation of rights. We filed a declaratory judgment action on behalf of National Casualty seeking a ruling that, based upon the allegations of the complaint, there was no requirement that National Casualty defend or indemnify Ms. Pickens. Specifically, three exclusions in the insurance contract relieve National Casualty from any liability: the intentional acts exclusion, the criminal acts exclusion, and the sexual misconduct exclusion. Ms. Pickens did not answer the Complaint. RP opposed our motion for summary judgment on the coverage issues.

Judge Thrash restated the general principles of Georgia law which provide that an insurer’s duty to defend turns on the language of the insurance contract and the allegations of the complaint asserted against the insured.  “Although the provisions of an insurance policy will be construed against the insurer when a part is susceptible of two constructions . . . if the language is unambiguous and but one reasonable construction is possible, the Court will enforce the contract as written. To excuse the duty to defend, the [lawsuit] must unambiguously exclude coverage under the policy . . . and thus, the duty to defend exists if the claim potentially comes within the policy.”

Judge Thrash found that the “intentional acts” exclusion of National Casualty policy relieved it of liability for all of the acts alleged by RP. The acts which gave rise to RP’s lawsuit were deliberate.  Even though RP also asserted a negligence claim against Pickens, Judge Thrash held this claim nonetheless arose from Pickens intentional acts.

RP argued, among other things, that the criminal acts exclusion of the policy does not apply because Pickens was found to be immune from criminal liability. Even if this were true, according to Judge Thrash, the intentional acts exclusion still relieved National Casualty of any liability in connection with RP’s lawsuit. Therefore, National Casualty had no duty to defend Pickens and no duty to indemnify her for any liability that may arise from RP’s lawsuit.

We expect this ruling to be appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Please let me know if you would like a copy of the opinion.

About the Author

Michael Rust graduated from Emory University in 1980 and Emory University School of Law in 1983 where he was Notes and Comments editor of the Emory Law Journal (Law Review). Since that time, he has maintained an active trial practice in the state of Georgia both in State and Federal Courts. Mr. Rust teaches litigation as part of Emory University School of Law’s annual Trial Practice Program. He has received AV rating from Martindale Hubble, the highest rating afforded to lawyers by their peers.