Allstate Insurance Company v. Tenn

Citation342 Conn. 292,271 A.3d 1014
Decision Date23 February 2022
Docket NumberSC 20586
Parties ALLSTATE INSURANCE COMPANY v. Donte TENN et al.
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut

Paige D. Beisner, with whom, on the brief, was Michele C. Wojcik, for the appellant (plaintiff).

Ronald S. Johnson, for the appellee (named defendant).

Eamon T. Donovan, Cromwell, for the appellee (defendant Tailan Moscaritolo).

Robinson, C. J., and McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn, Ecker, and Keller, Js.

KAHN, J.

The question in this case is whether the plaintiff, Allstate Insurance Company (Allstate), can use a plea of nolo contendere entered by the named defendant, Donte Tenn, to trigger a criminal acts exclusion in a homeowners insurance policy governed by Connecticut law. Allstate commenced the present action against Tenn and another defendant, Tailan Moscaritolo, in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, seeking a judgment declaring that it has no contractual duty either to defend or to indemnify Tenn in a civil action brought against Tenn by Moscaritolo in Connecticut Superior Court. Allstate subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment in this declaratory judgment action, arguing that Tenn's plea of nolo contendere relieved it of its duty both to defend and to indemnify him as a matter of law. The parties agreed that a ruling on Allstate's motion with respect to indemnification would be premature, and, as a result, the District Court denied Allstate's motion with respect to that issue without prejudice. The only remaining question, which the District Court, in turn, certified to this court pursuant to General Statutes § 51-199b (d) and Practice Book § 82-1, is whether Tenn's plea of nolo contendere relieved Allstate of its duty to defend by triggering the policy's criminal acts exclusion as a matter of law. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that Tenn's plea of nolo contendere is inadmissible to prove the occurrence of a criminal act and, therefore, cannot be used to trigger the policy's criminal acts exclusion.

The following undisputed facts and procedural history, which relate to three distinct judicial proceedings, are relevant to our consideration of the District Court's certified question. Those three proceedings are (1) the criminal case charging Tenn with an assault on Moscaritolo; State v. Tenn , Superior Court, judicial district of Middlesex, Docket No. CR-16-0210490-T; (2) the civil action brought by Moscaritolo against Tenn in the Superior Court; Moscaritolo v. Tenn , Superior Court, judicial district of Middlesex, Docket No. CV-18-6023052-S; and (3) the present declaratory judgment action filed by Allstate against Tenn and Moscaritolo in federal court.1 See Allstate Ins. Co. v. Tenn , United States District Court, Docket No. 3:19-cv-00432 (JBA), 2021 WL 1056648 (D. Conn. March 18, 2021). For the sake of clarity, we briefly review each of these three proceedings in turn.

The facts related to the criminal case against Tenn are straightforward. On October 10, 2016, Moscaritolo was hit repeatedly with a metal baseball bat while walking on a public street in the city of Middletown. Tenn was identified by several witnesses as the perpetrator of that assault and, a few weeks later, was arrested by the police. On November 6, 2018, Tenn entered a plea of nolo contendere to the charge of assault in the first degree in connection with that incident. At the plea hearing, the prosecutor summarized the evidence related to the assault and detailed the agreement the state had reached with Tenn in exchange for his plea. During the court's subsequent canvass, Tenn confirmed that he had heard the charge against him and the evidence recited by the prosecutor, and stated that he elected not to contest that charge.2 Prior to the court's canvass, the defendant completed, signed and submitted the required Plea of Nolo Contendere Form (JDCR-60), which provides:

"I am the defendant in the case named above and:

"I have personally been in the court and have been advised of my rights;

"I have had the complaint in this case read to me or gave up my right to have the complaint read to me;

"I do not want to contest the claims of the [s]tate of Connecticut that are in the complaint; and

"I will not contend with the [s]tate of Connecticut about the complaint.

"By signing this paper, I plead nolo contendere (no contest) and put myself on the clemency of the court."

During the canvass, the prosecutor informed the court that there was a pending civil case filed by the victim, Moscaritolo, against Tenn and his mother's insurance company. He further advised the court that Tenn was cooperating in that civil lawsuit, and, for that reason, the victim was "not necessarily seeking much jail time" and that he may be monetarily indemnified for the injuries he suffered. Ultimately, Tenn received a sentence of twelve years of imprisonment, execution suspended after two years, and three years of probation in connection with this conviction.

Moscaritolo's separate civil action against Tenn sought to recover damages for personal injuries resulting from the same assault.3 That action, which is presently awaiting trial before the Superior Court, contains four counts: (1) assault, (2) negligent assault, (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress, and (4) negligent infliction of emotional distress. The first and third counts allege that Moscaritolo's injuries resulted from Tenn's "wilful, wanton, intentional and malicious acts ...." The second and fourth counts, by contrast, allege that Tenn acted negligently by swinging the baseball bat near Moscaritolo wildly and without warning.4 Allstate is currently providing a legal defense to Tenn in that civil action subject to a reservation of rights.

Allstate then commenced a third action in District Court, seeking a judgment declaring that it was not contractually obligated to defend or to indemnify Tenn in Moscaritolo's civil action. Allstate conceded that Tenn qualified as an "insured person" within the meaning of a homeowners insurance policy purchased by Tenn's mother, Stephanie L. Patrick, that was in force at the time of the assault. (Internal quotation marks omitted.) It also conceded that the terms of that policy generally obligated it to pay "damages which an insured person becomes legally obligated to pay because of bodily injury or property damage arising from an occurrence ...." (Emphasis omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Allstate nonetheless alleged, inter alia,5 that it had no duty to defend or to indemnify Tenn because any coverage for his actions was precluded under the policy's criminal acts exclusion. That exclusion provides in relevant part: "[Allstate does] not cover bodily injury or property damage intended by, or which may reasonably be expected to result from the intentional or criminal acts of the insured person. This exclusion applies even if:

"(a) such bodily injury or property damage is of a different kind or degree than that intended or reasonably expected; or

"(b) such bodily injury or property damage is sustained by a different person than intended or reasonably expected.

"This exclusion applies regardless of whether or not such insured person is actually charged with, or convicted of a crime. ..." (Emphasis omitted.)

In its motion for summary judgment, Allstate claimed that there were no genuine issues of material fact relating to the application of the criminal acts exclusion and that, as a result, it was entitled to a declaratory ruling barring coverage as a matter of law. In advancing this argument, Allstate specifically argued that "Tenn's plea of nolo contendere precludes any argument that he did not commit [a] crime." The District Court reserved decision on this point of law and subsequently certified the following question to this court: "Whether a plea of nolo contendere and the resulting conviction can be used to trigger a criminal acts exclusion in an insurance policy." This court accepted that certified question, and this proceeding followed.

The applicable standard of review is well established. "[C]onstruction of a contract of insurance presents a question of law ... [that] this court reviews de novo. ... The determinative question is the intent of the parties, that is, what coverage the [insured] expected to receive and what the [insurer] was to provide, as disclosed by the provisions of the policy. ... In evaluating the expectations of the parties, we are mindful of the principle that provisions in insurance contracts must be construed as laymen would understand [them] and not according to the interpretation of sophisticated underwriters and that the policyholder's expectations should be protected as long as they are objectively reasonable from the layman's point of view. ... [W]hen the words of an insurance contract are, without violence, susceptible of two [equally responsible] interpretations, that which will sustain the claim and cover the loss must, in preference, be adopted. ... [T]his rule of construction favorable to the insured extends to exclusion clauses. ... When construing exclusion clauses, the language should be construed in favor of the insured unless it has a high degree of certainty that the policy language clearly and unambiguously excludes the claim. ... While the insured bears the burden of proving coverage, the insurer bears the burden of proving that an exclusion to coverage applies." (Internal quotation marks omitted.)

R.T. Vanderbilt Co. v. Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co. , 333 Conn. 343, 364–65, 216 A.3d 629 (2019) ; see also Misiti, LLC v. Travelers Property Casualty Co. of America , 308 Conn. 146, 154, 61 A.3d 485 (2013).

In this state, the general rule is that a plea of nolo contendere in a criminal case is inadmissible in a subsequent proceeding to prove the occurrence of a criminal act. See Groton v. United Steelworkers of America , 254 Conn. 35, 51, 757 A.2d 501 (2000) ("under our law a prior plea of...

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