October 18, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is Not State Employers’ Liability Law

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in City of Lakewood v. Safety National Casualty Corp. on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

42 U.S.C. § 1983—Indemnification—Defense Costs—Insurance—Employer Liability Law.

A City of Lakewood (City) police officer was killed by friendly fire, and his widow filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the City and various fellow officers had violated the deceased officer’s rights under the U.S. Constitution. The City sought indemnification for its own defense costs and those of the officers named in the lawsuit, which the City has an independent statutory duty to cover. The insurance company, Safety National Casualty Corporation, denied coverage. The district court concluded that a § 1983 claim did not arise under an employer liability law of any state and granted summary judgment for the insurance company.

On appeal, the City contended that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the insurance company because the policy unambiguously covers all defense costs incurred by the City in connection with the § 1983 lawsuit. Specifically, the City argued that the § 1983 municipal liability claim must be covered by the employers’ liability portion of the policy because it is a claim based on work-related injuries that falls outside the ambit of the workers’ compensation laws. However, this overstates the scope of the coverage under the policy. By the policy’s plain terms, the common law claims must arise under the laws of Colorado or “other State(s).” Section 1983 is not a law of Colorado or any other state. Therefore, the City’s defense costs, which were sustained because of liability imposed as a result of the widow’s § 1983 claim, did not arise from a state workers’ compensation or employers’ liability law and were not covered by the policy.

Next, the City contended that it was entitled to reimbursement for amounts it paid to cover the fellow officers’ defense costs. The policy’s definition makes clear that the term “Employee” refers to the injured employee, not to an employee potentially responsible for the injury. “Loss” means payments by the City to the injured employee and the employee’s dependents. Therefore, the City’s indemnification payments to the officers named in the lawsuit do not qualify as losses under the policy and the City is not entitled to reimbursement from the insurance company.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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