Gage County is appealing a recent ruling in Lancaster County that an insurance carrier isn’t liable for the $28.1 million verdict in the Beatrice 6 case.
The County Board voted to appeal a decision that liability policies Gage County purchased through Employer's Mutual Casualty (EMC) in 1989 do not provide coverage in the case.
Joel Bacon and Joel Nelson of Keating O’Gara Nedved and Peter law firm in Lincoln, attended Wednesday’s County Board meeting to discuss the case and said the board had to decide within the next three weeks if it wanted to appeal, or the case against the insurance carrier would end.
Gage County is arguing it has up to $4 million in coverage and reimbursement of fees in the case.
Nelson said the main issue in the case is if sheriff’s deputies are considered “professionals” for purposes of coverage by EMC. The court determined they are considered professionals, and therefore some coverage exclusions apply.
“We certainly think that appealing the decision in the EMC case makes sense,” Nelson said. “If you think about the potential recovery, let’s say an upside of $4 million plus the attorney fees, which were over $1 million in the underlying case, we think it does make sense that we have a good faith argument that it’s a relatively narrow legal issue.”
Bacon said he would file a petition to bypass the Nebraska Court of Appeals and take the case directly to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
County Board Chairman Myron Dorn said the appeal was necessary to ensure the county explores every option to fight the ruling, despite frustrations that it could be up to 18 months before the county gets an answer regarding the appeal.
“We’re trying to make sure we do everything and not leave something unattended to that we should look at,” he said. “Here again, this puts us out there another six months to a year and a half.”
In October, the court also ruled against Gage County in another insurance dispute with Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, which has covered the county since 1997. Attorneys for Gage County said on Wednesday that the case isn’t to the point that the decision can be appealed, and discussions how to proceed will likely be held at future meetings.
A District Court judge dismissed the county's claim in an Oct. 10 order, finding that Gage County sheriff's deputies had caused the injury leading to the wrongful conviction of six people before the policies went into effect.
The court also said Westport Insurance, American Alternative Insurance, United National Insurance and Travelers Indemnity, companies that contracted with Gage County through the risk management association, weren't responsible for paying the judgment because their policies retroactively took effect on Aug. 2, 1989 -- after the triggering incident against the six took place.
The Beatrice 6, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathleen Gonzalez, Debra Shelden and the estate of Joseph White, were convicted in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson in her downtown Beatrice apartment. They were arrested in March and April 1989 and ultimately spent a combined 75 years in prison until DNA evidence showed another man had committed the crime.
In 2016, a federal jury awarded the six a combined $28.1 million.