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Grange Insurance Ass'n v. Lintott

United States District Court, N.D. California

January 5, 2015

GRANGE INSURANCE ASSOCIATION, Plaintiff,
v.
MEREDITH LINTOTT, Defendant

Page 927

For Grange Insurance Association, Plaintiff: Michael Francis Hardiman, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lauren Lynn O'Brien, Hardiman & Carroll, Oakland, CA.

For Meredith Lintott, Defendant: David S. Casey, Jr., Scott Curtis Cummins, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Wendy Michelle Behan, Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt and Penfield LLP, San Diego, CA.

Page 928

Order Granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment

YVONNE GONZALEZ ROGERS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

This suit arises out of allegedly defamatory statements made by defendant Meredith Lintott (" Lintott" ) during her campaign for re-election to the position of District Attorney for Mendocino County, California. Robert Forest, the individual who was allegedly defamed by the statements, filed a lawsuit against Lintott in

Page 929

California state court (" Forest action" ) in which he alleges two separate counts of defamation and one count each of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. (Dkt. No. 32-3 (" Forest action compl." ).) Plaintiff Grange Insurance Association (" Grange" ), Lintott's insurer, seeks a declaration that it owes no duty to defend or indemnify her in the Forest action because the nature of the Forest action is not covered by her homeowner's insurance policy (the " Policy" ). ( See Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 17.)

Now before the Court is Grange's motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 32.) In response, Lintott has filed an opposition and a motion to strike. (Dkt. Nos. 33, 38.) Grange has responded to both. (Dkt. Nos. 34, 35.)

Having carefully considered the papers and evidence submitted, the pleadings, and the arguments of counsel, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court hereby Denies the motion to strike and Grants in Part Grange's motion for summary judgment.

I. Relevant Factual and Procedural Background

The facts relevant to this order are not reasonably in dispute.

A. Defendant's Homeowner's Insurance Policy

Grange issued a " Homeowners with HomePak Plus" insurance policy (the " Policy" ) to Lintott effective from June 5, 2010, to June 5, 2011. (Dkt. Nos. 32-9, 32-10.) The Policy consisted of a series of forms and endorsements, together with a declaration of coverages. ( Id.) Lintott's total annual policy premium is set at $1,096.00; of this, $31.00 was an " additional premium" for a personal injury endorsement providing, in part, broader personal liability coverage.[1] (Dkt. Nos. 32-9 at 3; 32-10 at 22.)

As a general framework, the Policy provides coverage in the event of " bodily injury" or " property damage" caused by an " occurrence." (Dkt. No. 32-10 at 7.) The Policy sets forth definitions for each of those terms. " Occurrence" is defined as " an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions, which results, during the policy period, in: a. 'Bodily injury'; or b. 'Property Damage.'" (Dkt. No. 32-9 at 17 (emphasis supplied).) " Property Damage" is defined as " physical injury to, destruction of, or loss of use of tangible property." ( Id.) " Bodily injury" is defined as " bodily harm, sickness or disease, including required care, loss of services and death that results." ( Id. at 17.) The Endorsement requiring the " additional premium" of $31.00 described above, further defines the term " Bodily injury" to include " Personal injury." (Dkt. No. 32-10 at 22.) The Endorsement defines " Personal injury" as including, in part, " injury arising out of one or more of the following offenses: . . . 2. Libel, slander or defamation of character; . . . ." ( Id.)

Page 930

B. Campaign Statements

In 2010, Lintott was running for re-election as the incumbent District Attorney for Mendocino County. During her campaign, she " prepared" and " approved" three radio advertisements. (Dkt. No. 32-11 (" Stipulation" ).) One of those radio advertisements accused her challenger, David Eyster, of accepting improper campaign contributions from Robert Forest and others with pending criminal cases. ( Id.) That advertisement said:

Eyster has also failed to tell you about the cash gifts to his campaign from men with pending felony cases. . . . The most alarming, $10,000, comes from a man who assaulted an unarmed man with a loaded gun. Seeking a concealed weapons permit he petitioned the court and was opposed by Lintott. The courts agreed with Lintott. Eyster has pocketed a $10,000 donation.

(Recording attached to Stipulation; Dkt. No. 32-4.) Lintott also made comments about the man behind the $10,000 contribution during a debate. (Stipulation at 2.) Although none of the statements reference Forest by name, the comment about the " most alarming" donation was about him and his identity was known to Lintott when she approved the advertisements. ( See Dkt. No. 33-2 ¶ 7 (" Lintott Decl." ).) Lintott based all of the statements about the impropriety of Forest's donations to her opponent's campaign on her " personal knowledge and inquiry regarding Mr. Forest." ( Id.)

C. Underlying Defamation Suit

In 2011, Forest brought suit against Lintott in California state court. (Dkt. No. 32-3 at 8.) In his complaint, Forest asserts four claims: (1) a defamation claim based on the radio advertisement; (2) a defamation claim arising out of the comments Lintott made during the debate; (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (4) negligent infliction of emotional distress. (Dkt. No. 32-3 at 3-7.) Forest alleges that Lintott " authorized and directed the publication of statements about Plaintiff on radio stations" and that she authorized and directed that such statements be broadcasted to thousands of people throughout Mendocino County. ( Id.) Forest also alleges that Lintott knew that such statements were false when she authorized and directed that they be broadcasted, as Lintott herself had personally dismissed all criminal charges against Forest. ( Id.) Forest argued that the statements were defamatory because the felony assault charges that had at one time been pending against him had been dismissed by the time Lintott made the statements. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 8, 17.)

By letter dated November 2, 2011, Grange notified Lintott that it would provide an attorney and a defense for her in the Forest action under a reservation of rights. (Dkt. Nos. 32-7, 34-2 ¶ 2.) The reservation of rights permitted Grange to disclaim coverage if any of the claims brought in the Forest action did not constitute an " occurrence" as defined in the policy and to seek reimbursement from Lintott. (Dkt. No. 32-7 at 8-9.) No party argues that the emotional distress claims are covered; the coverage dispute turns entirely on whether the defamation claim is covered.

Through counsel provided by Grange, Lintott moved to strike the complaint in the Forest action pursuant to California's anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute, California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. On February 3, 2012, the state trial court ruled that " the allegations based on the debate statements do not survive the SLAPP challenge." (Dkt. ...


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