Higgins v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., No. SC01-291

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Florida
Writing for the CourtWELLS, J.
Citation894 So.2d 5
PartiesCharles B. HIGGINS, Petitioner, v. STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, Respondent. Cheryl L. Ingalls, etc., Petitioner, v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, Respondent.
Docket Number No. SC01-292., No. SC01-291
Decision Date30 September 2004

894 So.2d 5

Charles B. HIGGINS, Petitioner,
Cheryl L. Ingalls, etc., Petitioner,
State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, Respondent

Nos. SC01-291, SC01-292.

Supreme Court of Florida.

September 30, 2004.

Rehearing Denied January 31, 2005.

894 So.2d 6
John P. Wiederhold of Wiederhold, Moses and Rubin, P.A., West Palm Beach, FL, on behalf of Charles B. Higgins; Theodore A. Deckert and Joseph K. Still, Jr., West Palm Beach, FL, on behalf of Cheryl L. Ingalls, f/k/a Cheryl L. Steele, for Petitioners

Elizabeth K. Russo of Russo Appellate Firm, Miami, FL, and Spencer M. Sax of Sachs, Sax and Klein, P.A., Boca Raton, FL, for State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, Respondent.


We have for review the decision of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Higgins, 788 So.2d 992 (Fla. 4th DCA 2001) (en banc), which certified a question to be of great public importance with regard to one issue and certified conflict with the decisions of the Third District Court of Appeal in Irvine v. Prudential Property & Casualty Insurance Co., 630 So.2d 579 (Fla. 3d DCA

894 So.2d 7
1993), and Burns v. Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co., 157 So.2d 84 (Fla. 3d DCA 1963), with regard to a second issue. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(4), Fla. Const


A. Trial Court

On July 2, 1995, Cheryl Ingalls filed a complaint against Charles Higgins, seeking damages for the intentional torts of assault and battery. The complaint alleged that Higgins had "willfully, intentionally, and with malice" committed the assault and battery on June 4, 1995, when he arrived drunk at the home of his estranged wife, Maureen Bradley, where he encountered both Bradley and Ingalls and engaged in the following conduct:

7. As [Ingalls] was standing before the front door of the home, [Higgins], without provocation or reason pushed [Ingalls] into the front door on the porch of the home and then upon her managing to get up [Higgins] grabbed her, threw her into a pile of wood on the porch, and again threw her down onto the porch. He then stuck his fist in her face, told her "I could kill you right now and get you out of my way now." He then slapped her in the face.
8. [Higgins] then went into the home and lunged after his estranged wife, Maureen Higgins. [Ingalls] again tried to talk with [Higgins] and calm him down. Without warning, provocation, or reason, [Higgins] grabbed [Ingalls'] wrist and threw her against the stairs in the home. As [Ingalls] came up from the stairs he grabbed her wrist again and threw her across the room where she struck a couch and fell on the floor.

Subsequently, Ingalls served an amended complaint that excluded the above specific allegations and simply alleged that Higgins came upon the property "while under the influence of and impaired by alcohol" and "violently threatened, touched and injured" her. The amended complaint also added a negligence claim against Bradley for failing to warn or protect Ingalls.

The property on which these alleged events occurred was covered by a homeowners policy issued to Higgins by State Farm Fire and Casualty Company. That policy provided coverage for bodily injuries "caused by an occurrence" and defined an "occurrence" as "an accident, including exposure to conditions, which results in ... bodily injury; or ... property damage; ... during the policy period." Exclusions within the policy provided that there was no coverage for bodily injury "which is either expected or intended by an insured" or for bodily injury "to any person... which is the result of willful and malicious acts of an insured."

On the basis of his homeowners policy, Higgins demanded that State Farm defend and indemnify him in the action brought by Ingalls. In response, State Farm filed a declaratory action naming Higgins, Bradley, and Ingalls as defendants and seeking a determination as to whether it had a duty to defend and indemnify Higgins under the policy. State Farm argued that it had no such duty because the alleged conduct did not constitute an "occurrence" within the meaning of the policy and fell within both exclusions.

The circuit court consolidated the underlying action brought by Ingalls and the declaratory action brought by State Farm. After a settlement was later reached with Bradley, Ingalls again amended her complaint against Higgins. That second amended complaint excluded the prior assault and battery allegations and alleged simply that while Ingalls was on the property as a guest of Bradley, Higgins came

894 So.2d 8
upon the property, began to argue with Bradley, and "negligently injured" Ingalls during the course of that altercation. As a result, State Farm amended its complaint for declaratory relief and argued that "despite the negligence label placed on Higgins' alleged conduct in the Second Amended Complaint in the underlying action, Higgins' alleged conduct was still of an intentional, willful, and malicious nature."

The declaratory action proceeded to a jury trial. In a special verdict form, the jury found that Higgins intended or expected to cause the injuries for which Ingalls was seeking damages and that Higgins willfully and maliciously caused those injuries. Post-trial, Ingalls moved for a new trial based on the remark of State Farm's counsel to the jury during opening statements that a settlement had already been reached between Ingalls and Bradley. The circuit court found that the remark violated section 768.041(3), Florida Statutes (1999), and granted a new trial. State Farm appealed, and Higgins and Ingalls cross-appealed on numerous points.

B. District Court

On appeal and cross-appeal, Judge Gross wrote for a unanimous en banc panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal and addressed six issues, three of which are relevant to this review. Regarding the first relevant issue, the district court held that the trial court should have granted the motion of Higgins and Ingalls for directed verdict on the issue of State Farm's duty to defend the action against Higgins. See Higgins, 788 So.2d at 995-96. Following established case law that a liability insurer's duty to defend a claim made against its insured must be determined solely from the allegations in the underlying complaint,1 the district court found that the allegations contained within the four corners of Ingalls' second amended complaint clearly placed the cause of action against Higgins within the duty-to-defend coverage of the policy. See id.

Regarding the second relevant issue, the district court held that the declaratory action was a proper vehicle to decide whether Higgins' conduct was excluded from the duty-to-indemnify coverage of the policy. See Higgins, 788 So.2d at 996-1002. The district court acknowledged case law holding that the declaratory judgment statute did not extend to actions in which the application of the language in an insurance policy to factual circumstances, rather than the language of an insurance policy itself, was in question. See, e.g., Columbia Casualty Co. v. Zimmerman, 62 So.2d 338 (Fla.1952); Smith v. Milwaukee Ins. Co., 197 So.2d 548 (Fla. 4th DCA 1967). However, the district court questioned the continued applicability of Columbia Casualty and Smith in view of a more recent trend in case law "in the direction of more freely allowing declaratory judgment suits as a vehicle for resolving fact issues deciding the existence of insurance coverage." Higgins, 788 So.2d at 1001. The district court cited decisions by the First, Second, and Fifth District Courts of Appeal as examples of this trend and noted that the Fifth District in Allstate Insurance Co. v. Conde, 595 So.2d 1005, 1008 (Fla. 5th DCA 1992), had certified the following question to this Court:

894 So.2d 9

Recognizing that this Court had not definitively ruled on that question, the district court certified the same question. Higgins, 788 So.2d at 1002.

Regarding the third relevant issue, the district court held that the trial court properly allowed the declaratory action to be tried prior to the resolution of the underlying liability action. Id. at 1002-06. The district court acknowledged two of its own prior decisions in which it concluded that an insurer's declaratory action seeking a determination of its duty to indemnify should have been deferred until the insured's liability was determined. See Home Ins. Co. v. Gephart, 639 So.2d 179 (Fla. 4th DCA 1994); Marr Investments, Inc. v. Greco, 621 So.2d 447 (Fla. 4th DCA 1993). However, the district court chose to partially recede from those prior decisions and adopt what it considered the "better procedural approach" adopted by the Fifth District in Conde, which held that an insurer could properly bring a declaratory action to determine both the duty to defend and the duty to indemnify prior to a determination of the insured's liability in the underlying action so long as the injured plaintiff also was made a party to the declaratory action. See Higgins, 788 So.2d at 1003-04. The district court found significant policy reasons supported this approach and held that it is a discretionary decision of the trial court to determine whether a declaratory action should be tried in advance of the underlying liability action. See id. at 1004-05. On this point, the district court also certified conflict with Burns v. Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co., 157 So.2d 84 (Fla. 3d DCA 1963) (insurer may not seek to have material issue from an underlying action predetermined in declaratory action), and Irvine v. Prudential Property & Casualty Insurance Co., 630 So.2d 579 (Fla. 3d DCA 1993) ("`[T]he better process is to require the insurer to...

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