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Sanders v. Illinois Union Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Illinois

November 21, 2019

RODELL SANDERS et al., Appellees,

          JUSTICE THEIS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Burke and Justices Thomas, Kilbride, Garman, and Karmeier concurred in the judgment and opinion.


          THEIS JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 In 1994, based on doctored evidence from the City of Chicago Heights Police Department, Rodell Sanders was charged with murder, attempted murder, and armed robbery. Sanders was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for approximately 20 years before being exonerated in 2014. From November 2011 to November 2014, Chicago Heights obtained primary liability insurance from Illinois Union Insurance Company (Illinois Union) and excess liability insurance from Starr Indemnity & Liability Company (Starr). The primary insurance policy indemnified Chicago Heights for, among other things, damages arising out of the "offense" of "malicious prosecution." At issue is whether the offense of malicious prosecution occurred during the policy period, thereby triggering the insurers' obligation to provide coverage. Based on the policy's terms, we conclude that coverage was triggered when Sanders was prosecuted in 1994.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 On December 15, 1993, at around 2 a.m., two people were seated inside of a parked car when a group of men attacked them. The offenders robbed and shot both victims. One victim died. The survivor later provided Chicago Heights police officers with a description of two of the assailants. Officers arrested Sanders in January 1994. Sanders did not match either physical description provided by the surviving victim, and he had an alibi that was confirmed by alibi witnesses. Nonetheless, officers manipulated the evidence to ensure his conviction.[1]

         ¶ 4 For example, after the surviving victim described one of the assailants as tall and skinny, officers altered Sanders's photograph to make him appear taller and thinner. Then, officers included that image in a photographic lineup so that the surviving victim would identify him as one of the culprits. According to Sanders, officers engaged in this conduct because they bore a grudge against him and sought to protect the real murderer, who was an important witness for the prosecution in other cases. Upon his conviction in January 1995, Sanders was sentenced to 80 years' imprisonment.

         ¶ 5 Sanders filed a postconviction petition, and in January 2011 the Cook County circuit court overturned the conviction and vacated his sentence. The appellate court affirmed its judgment in May 2012. Meanwhile, at some point in 2012, Chicago Heights provided Illinois Union and Starr with a notice of claim based on their policies from November 1, 2011, through November 1, 2014.[2]

         ¶ 6 The prosecution retried Sanders in August 2013, asking the jury to convict him on an additional theory of accountability. The second trial resulted in a mistrial. The prosecution retried Sanders again in July 2014, and the jury acquitted him. Sanders had filed a federal civil rights action against Chicago Heights in January 2013. After the jury acquitted him, Sanders amended the civil rights complaint to add claims of malicious prosecution.

         ¶ 7 Illinois Union responded to Chicago Heights' notice of claim in December 2014. At that time, it notified the city that it was declining to provide coverage because no covered events occurred during the policy periods. One year later, Starr similarly sent a declination, claiming that the malicious prosecution did not fall within the policy periods. Chicago Heights asked the insurers to reconsider their decisions, arguing that the date of Sanders's exoneration and his trials in August 2013 and July 2014 were discrete dates of loss.

         ¶ 8 The "general liability coverage part" of the insurance policy provides:

"The Insurer will indemnify the Insured for Damages and Claim Expenses in excess of the Retained Limit for which the Insured becomes legally obligated to pay because of a Claim first arising out of an Occurrence happening during the Policy Period in the Coverage Territory for Bodily Injury, Personal Injury, Advertising Injury, or Property Damage taking place during the Policy Period" (Emphases in original).

         "With respect to Personal Injury," occurrence was defined as "only those offenses specified in the Personal Injury Definition." (Emphases in original).

         ¶ 9 "Personal injury" was defined as "one or more of the following offenses *** [f]alse arrest, false imprisonment, wrongful detention or malicious prosecution *** wrongful eviction from, wrongful entry into, or invasion of the right of private occupancy of a room, dwelling or premises that a person occupies by or on behalf of the owner, landlord or lessor." (Emphasis in original). The policy provided that "[a]ll damages arising out of substantially the same Personal Injury regardless of frequency, repetition, the number or ...

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