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Home / Featured / $5.35M award affirmed for man wrongfully convicted of killing editor

$5.35M award affirmed for man wrongfully convicted of killing editor

The Court of Appeals Western District on Dec. 10 affirmed a $5.35 million judgment for a man wrongfully convicted of killing a newspaper editor in Columbia.

Ryan Ferguson

Ryan Ferguson speaks to members of the media during a November 2013 press conference in Columbia after his release from prison. File photo by Nick Schnelle/The Columbia Daily Tribune via AP

Ryan Ferguson spent a decade in prison for the 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt, but he was released in 2013 after an appeals court found his trial was unfair and set aside his conviction.

Ferguson sued multiple defendants, including officers with the Columbia Police Department, alleging they had pursued a baseless prosecution against him. An insurer for the city, Traveler’s Property and Casualty Corporation, denied coverage for the officers’ defense, asserting that any wrongful acts had occurred before its policies were in effect.

The denial prompted the officers and Ferguson to enter into an agreement under Section 537.065 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. The city dropped its defense, resulting in a bench trial in 2017 in which a federal judge awarded Ferguson more than $11 million.

Ferguson then filed suit in Boone County Circuit Court to recover the judgment from Travelers and its predecessor, St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Company. Last year, the court ruled that the insurers owed Ferguson $5.35 million. The award included $1 million for each year that his incarceration overlapped with the city policies, plus $854,000 in attorneys’ fees. The award subtracted $500,000 paid by the city earlier in the case. It was the 24th-largest plaintiffs’ win of 2018, as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Media.

The Western District affirmed the circuit court’s ruling. Judge Gary D. Witt wrote that no Missouri court had interpreted the specific insurance contract language at issue. But a recent case in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, won on behalf of the families of three wrongfully convicted men who spent decades behind bars in Mississippi, proved instructive.

In a coincidental Missouri connection, the 5th Circuit case, Travelers Indemnity Company v. Mitchell, was argued and won by Lathrop Gage’s insurance recovery practice in Kansas City. As part of its annual Missouri Lawyers Awards, Missouri Lawyers Media has named Michael J. Abrams, William G. Beck and Alex T. Brown as Influential Appellate Advocates for their work on the case.

In its May ruling, the 5th Circuit interpreted similar contract language and found that the estates of the three men could recover for the injuries they suffered in prison during the policy periods, even though the wrongful law enforcement actions that put them there occurred long before the insurance policies were issued.

While in prison, the Mississippi three men suffered a variety of assaults and illnesses. Ferguson didn’t claim he suffered any physical injuries during his incarceration, Witt wrote, “but at a minimum, Ferguson sustained the loss of liberty, loss of time, and deprivation of society each day of his incarceration, and the district court divided the damages related to the year in which they were sustained.”

In a lengthy paragraph, Witt noted that the ruling “may raise concerns that we hold a policy provides coverage for injuries resulting from a wrongful act which occurred before the policy incepted.” Witt added, however, that the ruling resulted from the language in the contract.

“We will not address concerns over pre-existing wrongs by distorting the plain meaning of the language which St. Paul chose to employ to describe its coverage obligations. An insurance company is perfectly capable of providing limitations on its coverage within the language of its policy . . . ,” he wrote.

Susan Ford Robertson of the Robertson Law Group, who argued for the insurers on appeal, didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Michael Berry of Newman, Comley & Ruth in Jefferson City, an attorney for Ferguson, declined to comment in detail on the ruling, as the case isn’t over. A claim that the insurers acted in bad faith remains pending in Boone County.

The case is Ferguson v. St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company et al., WD82090.