By Smita Mokshagundam, Sedgwick Chicago
Late last month, the Supreme Court of Alaska affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of an insurance company that denied coverage to insured, Kent Bearden, for liability in a civil suit filed by the victim of his assault. His insurer argued that, as Mr. Bearden had previously pleaded no contest to the related criminal disorderly conduct charge, the elements of which established he was not acting in self-defense, no coverage was available under the policy.
In Bearden v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. S-14345, 2013 WL 1777442 (Sup. Ct. Alaska April 26, 2013), the issue presented was whether the insured was collaterally estopped from relitigating the essential elements of a disorderly conduct charge so as to bring a later-filed civil suit within the scope of his homeowner’s insurance policy. The assault occurred when Mr. Bearden punched a man, with whom he had a history of nonviolent confrontations, after the man told him that, “he would like to kick [Mr. Bearden’s] ass.” Mr. Bearden was charged with assault and use of reckless force. He ultimately pleaded no contest to Disorderly Conduct, which makes it unlawful to knowingly challenge another to a fight or to engage in fighting other than in self-defense.
After paying the court ordered fine and serving 5 days in jail, he was sued civilly by the victim of the assault. Mr. Bearden sought a defense and indemnification from his homeowners policy which provided coverage, in relevant part, for damages caused by an “occurrence,” defined as an accident that is not expected or intended and is not the result of willful and malicious acts. Not surprisingly, his insurer denied coverage on the basis that there was no “occurrence” alleged, and because Mr. Bearden’s no contest plea established as a matter of law that his conduct was expected, intended and he acted willfully and maliciously.
Although Mr. Bearden claimed in response to the civil suit that he was acting in self-defense, the court found that he was collaterally estopped from arguing self-defense, having already pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct. Mr. Bearden argued that the three-part test previously articulated by the Alaska Supreme Court for determining when a no-contest plea can be used to collaterally estop a civil defendant from relitigating an issue was not met. The required showing is that the offense to which the defendant pleaded no contest was “serious,” he was afforded a full and fair hearing, and the issue was previously decided.
In this regard, Mr. Bearden argued at length that the offense to which he pleaded no contest was not “serious,” because his jail time was minimal and only a fraction of what he could have been received. The court was not persuaded, finding that although he only served five days, offenses punishable by imprisonment are deemed serious. Mr. Bearden also argued that he was not given a fair hearing, because he was not explicitly advised that in pleading no contest he would lose insurance coverage. This argument was summarily rejected. Finally, Mr. Bearden argued that the issue of whether he acted in self-defense was not previously decided because he admitted nothing by entering a no-contest plea. However, the court agreed with the insurer’s reasoning that the issues of self-defense and the state of Mr. Bearden’s mind were decided as part of the no contest plea, as the definition of disorderly conduct offense, to which he pleaded no contest, includes a knowing element, as well as the element that the fight was not in self-defense.