‘No Contest’ Plea Doesn’t Trigger Criminal Exclusion in Home Policy: Connecticut Court

By Andrew G. Simpson | March 8, 2022

An insured’s plea of nolo contendere to criminal charges does not trigger a criminal acts exclusion in a homeowners insurance policy governed by state law, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled.

A federal court asked the state’s high court to answer whether Allstate Insurance Co. was relieved of its duty to defend the defendant, Donte Tenn, in a civil case after Tenn pleaded nolo contendere (or no contest) to related criminal charges of assault in the first degree.

Allstate argued that it was not obligated to defend Tenn in the civil case because the no contest plea to the criminal charges triggered the criminal acts exclusion in a homeowners insurance policy it had issued to Tenn’s mother. The insurer said its position was grounded in good public policy.

However, the state’s high court in Allstate v. Donte Tenn made it very clear that Connecticut law and public policy hold that a plea of nolo contendere is not admissible in future proceedings and thus cannot be used by an insurer to satisfy a criminal acts exclusion for a later civil proceeding.

“In this state, the general rule is that a plea of nolo contendere in a criminal case is inadmissible in a subsequent proceeding to prove the occurrence of a criminal act. Indeed, the operation of this principle is what makes a plea of nolo contendere unique.” the court stated.

The court stressed that such a plea is “not an admission of guilt and cannot be used as an admission in a later proceeding” and noted that this common-law rule has also been codified in the Connecticut Code of Evidence.

“Allowing the use of nolo contendere pleas as proof of underlying criminal conduct in subsequent civil litigation would, thus, undermine the very essence of the nolo contendere plea itself,” the court stated.

“Whatever the case, there are a litany of reasons why a criminal defendant may accept a nolo plea and it should not be casually assumed that a defendant has sufficient incentive to litigate merely because she is charged with a serious offense. Even innocent defendants may have a broad range of motivations for entering a plea of nolo contendere rather than contesting a charge,” the court continued.

While extolling the merits of the policy on nolo pleas, the court acknowledged that such pleas are not without limits in sheltering defendants from further consequences. For example, courts have found that drivers can still lose their driving licenses after pleading nolo contendere to driving under the influence charges. Similarly, a plea of nolo contendere in a drug felony case can still result in the suspension of a physician’s certificate of registration to distribute a controlled substance.

Furthermore, the court noted, this public policy does not preclude Allstate from seeking to enforce the criminal acts exclusion on the basis of the evidence that led to Tenn’s prosecution and conviction. “Indeed, Allstate is no less able to enforce the exception in this case than it would be in a case in which the state declined to pursue a criminal prosecution of the insured party in the first instance,” the court said.

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