In a recent New Jersey case regarding allegations of a board of education’s knowledge of a teacher’s inappropriate conduct involving students, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey held that the board’s commercial general liability insurer properly disclaimed coverage as its policy excluded coverage for “abusive acts.”
In Montville Township Board of Education v Zurich American Insurance Co., Jason Fennes was a teacher at Montville Township Board from September 1998 to June 30, 2010. Shortly after he resigned from Montville, he began working for Cedar Hill Prep. In March 2012, while working as a teacher at Cedar Hill, Fennes was arrested for sexually abusing a Montville student in 2005. At that time, Montville notified Zurich American Insurance Company, its commercial general liability carrier, of a potential claim, and Zurich issued a general reservation of rights. In August 2012, a six year old student at Cedar Hill, “Child M,” and her parents sued Fennes and Cedar Hill, alleging that Fennes sexually abused her in February 2012. In January 2015, Child M filed a third amended complaint naming Montville as a defendant, alleging that Montville knew about, or was on notice of, Fennes’ sexual abuse of students at Montville, and that it failed to report Fennes to the authorities, as required by law. Child M also alleged that Montville entered into an agreement with Fennes in 2010 in which it agreed to limit the information it would pass along to potential employers in exchange for Fennes’ resignation. Finally, Child M alleged that but for Montville’s failure to report and provide information about Fennes to prospective employers like Cedar Hill, Child M would not have been sexually abused by Fennes. Cedar Hill filed a cross-claim against Montville for contribution and indemnification based on these allegations.
The Zurich policy, which was effective July 1, 2011, contained a CGL Part, which provided an exclusion for bodily injury “arising out of or relating in any way to an ‘abusive act’” or “any loss, cost or expense arising out of or relating in any way to an ‘abusive act.’” An “abusive act” was defined as “any act or series of acts of actual or threatened abuse or molestation done to any person, including any act or series of acts of actual or threatened sexual abuse or molestation done to any person by anyone who causes or attempts to cause the person to engage in a sexual act: a. without the consent of or by threatening the person … b. if that person is incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct or us physically incapable of declining participation in or communicating unwillingness to engage in the sexual act …”. The Zurich policy also contained an Abusive Act Coverage Part (the “AA Coverage Part”), which provided insurance for “loss because of ‘injury’ resulting from an ‘abusive act.’” However, the AA Coverage Part excluded coverage for any “‘abusive act’ of which any insured, other than the insured actually committing the ‘abusive act’, has knowledge prior to the effective date of this Coverage Part.” Zurich disclaimed any duty to defend or indemnify Montville under the CGL and AA Coverage Parts, as Child M’s bodily injury arose out of or related to “abusive acts” per the terms of the CGL Part and its exclusion, and as Child M alleged that Montville knew about Fennes’ abusive acts but failed to report them, bringing the allegations within the exclusion of the AA Coverage Part. Montville filed an insurance coverage action against Zurich following Zurich’s disclaimer of coverage.
After Montville and Zurich filed cross-motions for summary judgment, the United States Court for the District of New Jersey granted Zurich’s motion and denied Montville’s motion, holding that the CGL Part’s “abusive acts” exclusion was not only clear and unambiguous, but that it was broad and expansive, as it excluded coverage for bodily injury “arising out of or relating in any way to an ‘abusive act’” and therefore barred coverage under the CGL Part. It did not matter that the abuse to Child M occurred after Fennes’ employment by Montville to a child who was not a Montville student, as the definition of “abusive act” broadly included “any act or series of acts of actual or threatened sexual abuse or molestation done to any person by anyone.” While the Court did not go into a detailed analysis of the AA Coverage Part, it did outline the substantial evidence to support the allegations that Montville knew about Fennes’ abusive acts, and found that Montville “virtually knew” that Fennes would continue to abuse students at other schools when it agreed not to disclose his past abusive acts to potential employers in exchange for his resignation.
This case serves as a useful reminder that insurance carriers can protect themselves from certain claims when their policies of insurance are clear, unambiguous, and broad reaching.
Thanks to Rebecca Rose for her contribution to this post.