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Decided: July 10, 2015

The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment and held that Citizens Insurance Company of America (“Citizens”) had no duty to defend Liberty University (“Liberty”) against the complaint filed by Janet Jenkins.

In 2012, Janet Jenkins sued Liberty University, alleging that the school participated in a scheme to kidnap Jenkins’ daughter. Jenkins alleged that Liberty aided Lisa Miller, the child’s biological mother and former partner in a same sex civil union, to take the child to Nicaragua. This lawsuit stems from Jenkins complaint against Liberty.

The district court found that Citizens had a duty to defend Liberty against the complaint. According to the policy at issue, Citizens must defend Liberty against suits alleging certain harms that arise from an “occurrence” or an unexpected accident, which does not fall under any of the listed coverage exclusions. The policy also contains a “Separation of Insureds” provision, which requires a court to evaluate a claim by each named insured individually.  The district court found that the Separation of Insureds provision was ambiguous and should therefore be interpreted in Liberty’s favor. Furthermore, the district court refused to consider the intent of Liberty’s agents when determining if the complaint alleged an accidental “occurrence” and whether the policy’s exclusions applied. The district court concluded that Jenkins’ complaint failed to “sufficiently allege” Liberty’s vicarious liability. Accordingly, the district court granted summary judgment to Liberty.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed and found that Jenkins’ complaint did not allege an “occurrence” and that the complaint triggered the policy’s coverage exclusions. Therefore, Citizens did not have a duty to defend Liberty. The Court applied Virginia law and concluded that the Separation of Insureds provision in the policy did not displace Virginia’s rule that an insurer has no duty to defend against a suit alleging the insured is liable for the intentional acts of its agents under a theory of respondent superior. Furthermore, the Court found that because the complaint alleged only intentional acts, it did not claim Liberty’s liability for damage arising from an “occurrence.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Meredith Weisler