OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - Mendocino County's former district attorney cannot rely on her insurance company to defend her in an election-related defamation lawsuit, a federal judge ruled.
Mendocino County District Attorney Meredith Lintott lost her 2010 bid for re-election to David Eyster. After the election, Eyster campaign donor Robert Forest sued Lintott for defamation based on statements made in a radio ad.
The ad accused Eyster of accepting improper campaign contributions from Forest and from others who had criminal cases pending.
The ad stated: "Eyster has also failed to tell you about the cash gifts to his campaign from men with pending felony cases; one in the amount of $2,000, another in the amount of $750. 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. Are concealed weapons permits now on sale in Mendocino County?"
In granting the Grange Insurance Association's motion for summary judgment on Jan. 5, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers added, citing stipulations: "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."
Grange Insurance claimed it is not responsible for defending Lintott because the statements were not accidental, and therefore not covered by its policy.
During a debate, Lintott made similar comments about Forest, stating that he had assaulted a man with a loaded firearm and attempted to bribe a public official, according to Forest's defamation lawsuit.
Though Forest was never referred to during the debate either, Lintott based her statements on her "personal knowledge and inquiry regarding Mr. Forest," according to the ruling.
Forest did make a $10,000 contribution to the Eyster campaign. He claimed that the criminal charges to which Lintott referred had been dismissed by the time she made them.
Forest was charged in 2006 with felony assault with a firearm. Two years later, Lintott, then district attorney, appeared in court and successfully moved to dismiss the criminal complaint for insufficient evidence. Forest later petitioned for a finding of factual innocence, but was denied.
Forest sued Lintott in 2011, claiming that Lintott she knew her statements were false because she had personally dismissed the criminal charges against him.
Lintott attempted to strike the complaint under California's anti-SLAPP statute. The state trial court ruled that the allegations based on statements made during the debate could not survive the SLAPP challenge, but the claim based on the radio ad could move forward.
"Allowing this action to proceed seems inconsistent with the profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open. Forest has, however, at least with respect to the political ad, demonstrated the minimal showing necessary to defeat the special motion to strike," the state court said at the time.
The California Court of Appeal affirmed, finding that someone listening to the ad could have understood that it was stating, falsely, that Forest had a pending felony case against him.
Grange Insurance represented Lintott in the defamation case under a reservation of rights permitting it to disclaim coverage if any of the claims brought under the lawsuit did not fall under the policy's coverage.
Grange filed its own complaint, seeking a declaration that it does not owe a duty to defend or indemnity Lintott in the Forest action because the nature of the action is not covered under the policy.
"Grange contends that there is no coverage or potential coverage under the policy for Lintott in the underlying action because defamation is covered only if it is caused by an accident and Lintott's statements at issue in the Forest action cannot constitute an accident as a matter of law. The court agrees," Gonzalez Rogers wrote.
The policy provides coverage for bodily injury - which includes libel, slander or defamation of character - caused by an "occurrence," which is defined as "an accident." Therefore, for defamation to be covered, it must have been the result of an accident, Rogers found.
"With this in mind, there can be no reasonable argument that Lintott's statements concerning Forest were accidental. The unique context in which these statements were made, their substance, and Lintott's own declaration together establish that they were not. Lintott admits that she made the statements on more than one occasion, and indeed, approved of their dissemination on the radio during her re-election campaign.
"Moreover, Lintott researched and authored the allegedly defamatory statements; she admits that the statements are 'based upon my personal knowledge and inquiry regarding Mr. Forest' and she specifically 'prepared' and 'approved' the content of the radio advertisement. Accordingly, no reasonable fact finder could determine that the statements were accidental as that term has been understood.
"Lintott's statement that she believed the statements to be true and that she did not intend to cause harm to Forest is of no moment, for 'the insured's subjective intent is irrelevant' in determining whether such actions constitute an 'accident,'" Rogers ruled.
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