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March 21, 2012

Legal Update
William L. Boesch, Jessica H. Park

Appeals Court upholds negligence finding in knifing incident, permitting insurance recovery

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The Massachusetts Appeals Court has upheld a finding in a superior court bench trial that a defendant who wielded a knife in a street fight, and stabbed an adversary three times—including fatally in the heart—acted negligently but not intentionally. The decision entitled the victim’s surviving daughter to collect a $250,000 wrongful-death damages award against the defendant’s insurer.

The case, Guzman v. Pring-Wilson, arose from a well-publicized 2003 incident in which the defendant, a Harvard graduate student, became involved in an alcohol-fueled altercation with two other men. After punches were exchanged, Pring-Wilson pulled a four-inch folding knife from his pocket, flailed it at one of the other men, Michael Colono, and inflicted a total of five wounds, including the stab-wound to Colono’s heart from which he later died.

After two unsuccessful criminal prosecutions of Pring-Wilson, the second of which ended in a hung jury, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. In so doing, he admitted that he had acted “wantonly” and “recklessly,” and in a way that a reasonable person would have known created a high likelihood of substantial harm to the two other men.

The executrix of Colono’s estate brought a civil wrongful-death action against Pring-Wilson. As is common in such cases, the availability of insurance coverage for any judgment against Pring-Wilson (under a policy issued to his mother in Colorado) turned on whether he acted intentionally, or merely negligently. When the case was tried—before a superior court judge sitting as factfinder—and later on appeal, it was the defendant who was in the position of arguing that his actions were intentional, albeit justified as self-defense.

The trial judge held, based on essentially undisputed facts about the incident, that Pring-Wilson was negligent—in failing to avail himself of alternatives to fighting, and in employing more force than was necessary to repel the other men—and for the same reason he lost any privilege of self-defense to which he might have been entitled. The trial judge also found that Pring-Wilson did not act intentionally, in that he did not intend to cause death or serious harm to the men, but merely to drive them away.

The judge awarded damages to Colono’s executrix, but reduced the damages by half based on Colono’s own comparative negligence. Based on this result, a federal court judge in December 2011 held that Pring-Wilson’s insurer was required to provide coverage. Pring-Wilson appealed the negligence finding, asserting that as a matter of law the facts of the case required a finding that he acted intentionally. While this appellate claim must have been mostly (if not entirely) for the benefit of Pring-Wilson’s insurer, the Appeals Court’s decision, curiously, nowhere mentions this or provides any practical context for the dispute.

Pring-Wilson argued before the Appeals Court that his conduct must have amounted to an assault on Colono, an intentional tort. But the court observed that the tort of assault requires either (a) an intent to commit battery or (b) intentional threatening, combined with apprehension of harm by the victim. Since the trial judge found that Pring-Wilson’s intent was to drive the other men away, not to stab them, the court reasoned, there was no attempted battery. And while Pring-Wilson undoubtedly intended to threaten, “the judge made no finding that either Colono or [his companion] was aware that Pring-Wilson had a knife before Colono was injured, and neither party points to any evidence in the record that would support such a finding.”

The court’s characterization of the evidence on this subject is somewhat puzzling, given its earlier summary indicating that while Colono did not immediately realize that he had been stabbed, Pring-Wilson had flailed with the knife at Colono while he was “in front of” Pring-Wilson, and moments later Colono had warned his companion that Pring-Wilson had a knife. The court’s interpretation of the evidence as permitting the conclusion that Colono’s realization occurred only after he had received all five knife wounds is left unexplained in the decision.

The Appeals Court distinguished the case before it from earlier matters in which the Supreme Judicial Court held a defendant’s conduct intentional as a matter of law. In those cases, the Appeals Court said, the only permissible conclusion from the evidence was that the defendant must have intended a clearly harmful result.

The court also made clear that it was not enough that Pring-Wilson’s act of displaying the knife was itself volitional. To preclude negligence, the court said, the evidence would have had to show as a matter of law that Pring-Wilson either intended harm to his adversaries, or must have realized there was a substantial certainty (and not merely a probability) of such harm. The trial judge was entitled on the evidence, the Appeals Court concluded, to find that Pring-Wilson’s state of mind did not reach this level of culpability.

For more information, please contact William L. Boesch, Jessica H. Park, or your attorney contact at SRBC.

This Alert was prepared for the clients and friends of Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C. It is provided for educational and informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice on your specific legal situation.