Aetna Cas. and Sur. Co. v. Gosdin

Decision Date10 November 1986
Docket NumberNo. 85-8781,85-8781
Citation803 F.2d 1153
Parties21 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 1360 The AETNA CASUALTY AND SURETY COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Gwindle G. GOSDIN, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Lee Sexton, William H. Turner, Jonesboro, Ga., for defendant-appellant.

Burton L. Tillman, Jr., Atlanta, Ga., for plaintiff-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Before KRAVITCH and CLARK, Circuit Judges, and HENDERSON, Senior Circuit Judge.

CLARK, Circuit Judge.

In this typical fire insurance case in which the insurance company claimed that the policyholder committed arson, the policyholder appeals from a jury verdict in favor of the company. In its action for declaratory judgment to settle all claims on the policy, the company presented no direct evidence linking the policyholder to the fire, but did mount a case of circumstantial evidence that would permit the jury to return a verdict in its favor. Beyond the evidence relating to the arson, however, the insurance company presented, in its opening case as plaintiff, evidence of unrelated burglary, pimping, pandering, and drug charges that had been brought against the defendant in the months and years before the fire. The evidence of the charges, according to the insurance company, was presented in defense of a counterclaim of bad faith; it is this evidence that the appellant policyholder challenges. Because we cannot say that this unduly prejudicial evidence did not affect the jury's ultimate decision, we must vacate the judgment below and remand this case for a new trial.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In the early morning hours of May 10, 1983, a small shopping center in Fulton County, Georgia, was substantially damaged by fire. At the time of the fire, the appellant in this case, Gwindle G. Gosdin, owned the shopping center and maintained a fire insurance policy with the appellee, Aetna Casualty and Surety Company. Following the fire, Gosdin filed a claim with Aetna. Aetna investigated the fire, and found evidence suggesting that Gosdin had set the fire himself. Aetna refused to pay Gosdin's claim, and on April 24, 1984, Aetna filed in the district court an action for declaratory judgment to have its rights and obligations adjudicated in connection with the insurance policy. Gosdin filed a counterclaim for bad faith penalties and attorney's fees under Georgia law. 1

A. Aetna's Case

In its case in chief, Aetna presented both evidence suggesting that Gosdin had set the fire and evidence defending against Gosdin's as yet unpresented bad faith claim.

While both sides conceded that the fire had been intentionally set, Aetna presented extensive evidence of the arson. The fire had multiple points of origin, and evidence of flammable liquids was found at a number of the points of origin, including an office/storage area used by Gosdin and a florist shop for which Gosdin had a key. Both the county's and Aetna's fire investigators testified that the fire was arson.

Aetna's circumstantial evidence of Gosdin's involvement in the fire was substantial. All of the points of origin of the fire were in areas to which Gosdin had keys. There was no evidence of any forcible entry into the building. Although he was seldom at the shopping center, the day before the fire he was at the center and in the storage area where part of the fire started.

Aetna presented evidence that Gosdin's financial situation was precarious, that Gosdin owed back taxes on various properties, that no tenant in the building stood to benefit substantially from any fire insurance proceeds, and that Gosdin benefited from a separate fire insurance policy. The evidence suggests that Gosdin may have learned prior to the fire that one of the tenants in the shopping center, the flower shop, was cancelling its lease, 2 thus presenting the prospect of reduced revenue from the building. Beyond his policy with Aetna, Gosdin was also the loss payee of a fire policy on the inventory of a grocery store in the shopping center, and he received $20,000 from that policy. Aetna presented evidence that, three days before the fire, Gosdin had contacted the grocery store's insurance agent to confirm that the policy on the inventory was still in effect and that Gosdin was still the loss payee; Gosdin learned that the insurance policy was due to expire on May 15, 1983, five days after the fire.

Aetna presented testimony detailing how, during two sworn depositions taken pursuant to a clause in Gosdin's insurance policy, Gosdin had made a number of false statements and statements directly conflicting with evidence presented to the jury. In these depositions, Gosdin claimed that he did not have keys to the building (although he later admitted that he did), that he had not been in the building the day before the fire, that he had called to check on the grocery store insurance policy weeks, not days, before the fire, and that he did not learn about the intention of the florist shop to vacate the premises until three days after the fire (even though the evidence later showed that he had received the notice by the day after the fire at the latest).

Finally, in part to show Gosdin's financial need at the time of the fire and in part to demonstrate the good faith doubts Aetna had about the insurance claim, Aetna presented testimony revealing that just before the fire Gosdin had been released on bond from pending burglary charges. Aetna's argument was that Gosdin needed money to fund his criminal defense. Gosdin's attorney objected and moved for a mistrial. The motion was denied, in part because Gosdin's attorney himself had mentioned the burglary charge in his opening statement. Aetna's witness then continued to testify that Gosdin had in the past faced charges of pimping, pandering, possession of drugs, and distribution of drugs. 3

B. Gosdin's Case and This Appeal

Gosdin presented evidence suggesting that Marion Davis, the owner of the grocery store who did not get along well with Gosdin, might have set the fire. A neighbor of the building testified that when the neighbor had called at 3:00 a.m. to inform the owner and tenants of the fire then raging, Gosdin had sounded asleep while Davis sounded wide awake. Davis was called to the stand and admitted having bad relations with Gosdin. A woman with whom Gosdin was living testified that Gosdin was upset when he received the news of the fire. Gosdin himself testified that he was in sound financial condition at the time of the fire, that the storage room where part of the fire started was used by a tenant to store paint, and that contrary to testimony by Aetna's witnesses, he had promptly reported the fire to Aetna.

Relevant to this appeal, the record reveals that Gosdin's attorney mentioned the burglary charges during his opening argument in explanation that Gosdin was upset and distracted by the criminal charges when he made the misstatements in the Aetna depositions. On the witness stand, Gosdin himself volunteered the fact that he had just been released from jail at the time of the depositions, and that the burglary charges had resulted in a conviction.

Based on this evidence, the jury found for Aetna. On this appeal, Gosdin raised three objections. He challenges the admission of evidence about the criminal charges; he challenges the refusal by the trial court to permit him to present evidence indicating that he was never charged or convicted of arson in this case; and Gosdin challenges the removal by the court of a juror whose daughter had been a client of a law partner of Gosdin's attorney. Because of our resolution of the first issue, we are not required to reach the other two issues, but in the interest of judicial efficiency, we will also briefly discuss the second claim.

II. ADMISSION OF EVIDENCE OF UNRELATED CRIMINAL CHARGES

Gosdin argues that the evidence of criminal charges brought against him should not have been admitted at trial; he suggests that the evidence was unduly prejudicial. As Gosdin claims in simple terms, he "had no chance of recovery, regardless of the merits of the case, once [Aetna] was allowed to brand him a Burglar, a Pimp, a Panderer and a dope fiend." Appellant's Brief at 21. Aetna's response is that this evidence spoke to the question of Aetna's good or bad faith in handling the insurance claim.

Our analysis of this dispute, however, is made difficult by the fact that Aetna presented in its case in chief its defense of Gosdin's counterclaim for bad faith. Aetna's witnesses testified at the same time about matters concerning the underlying question of whether Gosdin committed arson and about matters concerning the collateral question of whether Aetna acted in bad faith in denying the claim. Because the distinction between these two issues was blurred before the jury, we must carefully consider what effect the evidence might have had on the jury in its consideration of the ultimate question of the arson. 4

A. Bad Faith Claim Defenses

As a threshold matter, we must consider whether Georgia law includes any special considerations about defending bad faith claims that should encourage this court to set aside our normal concerns about prejudicial evidence. Aetna argues that, in defending against a bad faith claim, an insurance company "has the right ... to present to the jury the complete and total evidentiary picture brought forth in its investigation supporting its refusal to pay the subject claim to show that it had a reasonable ground therefore." Appellee's Brief at 19 (emphasis added) (citing Hartford Fire Insurance Co. v. Lewis, 112 Ga.App. 1, 143 S.E.2d 556 (1965)).

The majority opinion in the Hartford case, however, only briefly analyzes the bad faith issue and does not discuss the question of what evidence the insurance company can present. 143 S.E.2d at 558. 5 A Georgia Supreme Court case, cited but not quoted by Aetna, is more...

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