The background to this case is the history of acrimonious relations between car insurers and the auto body repair industry in Rhode Island. Simply put, each side has long believed that it is being cheated by the other.
David Miller, the plaintiff in this case, is the former head of the trade association of repair shops and has long played a prominent role in the ongoing dispute between the shops and insurers like Amica. In 2001 he was the target of two sting operations. Apparently allegations had been made by several sources that Miller inflated the costs of repairs; in other words, Miller was alleged to have committed insurance fraud. As part of the undercover investigation, Metropolitan Property and Casualty Insurance Co. provided the Rhode Island State Police with a vehicle that was taken into Miller’s shop for repairs. This sting operation led to Miller’s being charged with billing more than $1,100 in fraudulent repairs. In a second sting operation, Amica provided a damaged vehicle and a fake insurance policy, and Miller supposedly billed $1,050 in fraudulent repairs on that job. Miller was arrested and charged with insurance fraud and with attempting to obtain money under false pretenses. The charges were later dismissed because of evidentiary problems, but Miller was required to surrender his license to run his repair shop.
In this case, he claimed that Amica and Metropolitan vindictively abused legal process in order to get him arrested. The case went to a jury, which found against both insurers. The trial judge, however, finding a dearth of evidence against Amica, granted Amica’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (he, however, found ample evidence to justify the jury’s verdict against Metropolitan). Miller appealed. Miller’s argument urging reinstatement of the abuse of process verdict rested entirely upon an analysis of the sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial. He claims that the evidence is sufficient to support a jury-finding that Amica initiated the investigation against him, rather than Amica’s having merely assisted the police when called upon to do so.
On appeal, Amica argued that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient, as a matter of law, to support the verdict against it. It also responded that it merely did its civic duty in assisting police in an investigation that the insurer played no role in initiating.
NELF filed an amicus brief in support of Amica. While NELF was in no position to decide between conflicting views of the trial evidence, it laid out for the Court the ancient, widely-recognized Anglo-American public policy of protecting private individuals from civil liability when they have rendered assistance to law enforcement officials at the latter’s request. First, NELF reviewed the numerous Rhode Island statutes, including insurance law statutes, that codify this policy, some of which acknowledge the living common law background of the policy. Then NELF discussed the policy’s broader common law background as most memorably embodied in Justice Cardozo’s decision in Babington v. Yellow Taxi Corp., 250 N.Y. 14, 164 N.E. 726 (1928). NELF concluded by examining two federal cases that it suggests clarify the situation in which Amica finds itself in this case. In filing its brief, NELF hoped to spur the Court to use the occasion of this appeal to acknowledge, for the first time in Rhode Island decisional law, the vitality of the common law principle.
In its March 20, 2015 decision, Miller v. Metropolitan Property and Cas. Ins. Co., 111 A.3d 332 (R.I. 2015), the Court decided the appeal in Amica’s favor on the basis of a release Miller had given as part of the dismissal of the criminal case against him. Unfortunately, therefore, the Court did not reach the issue of common law immunity.