Judge rules Gage County insurance provider does not have to cover Beatrice Six judgment

Judge rules Gage County insurance provider does not have to cover Beatrice Six judgment
The Beatrice Six, top row, from left: Tom Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden. Bottom row, from left: Kathy Gonzalez, James Dean and Joseph E. White. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — A Nebraska judge has ruled that an insurance provider doesn’t have to cover the legal debt of a county that wrongfully convicted six people in a 1985 rape and slaying.

Lancaster County District Judge Jodi L. Nelson ruled Thursday that the liability policies Gage County purchased in 1989 do not cover the county’s mishandling of the so-called Beatrice Six case, according to the Lincoln Journal Star.

Gage County faces a $28 million federal judgment after losing a lawsuit filed by the six people who were wrongfully convicted and served a combined 75 years in prison for the murder of 68-year-old Helen Wilson.

The six were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008 and won their lawsuit in 2016. A federal appeals court rejected Gage County’s appeal earlier this year, leaving local officials with few options other than paying the judgment.

The policies in question were purchased through Employer’s Mutual Casualty. Attorneys for the county asked a judge to determine whether a series of liability insurance policies would pay all or part of the damages or legal fees from the case.

Nelson ruled in October that insurance policies Gage County carried through the Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, a risk-sharing pool, were not in effect when the six were arrested. That coverage went into effect in 1997.

On Thursday, Nelson reached the same conclusion on the Employer’s Mutual Casualty policies, which insured the county from Feb. 2, 1989, until Feb. 2, 1990.

The state’s appellate courts have not yet heard the issue.

Nelson said the language of the Employer’s Mutual Casualty policy excluded “any and all professional services” but did not define what those services were.

Attorneys for Gage County argued that law enforcement was an occupation, not a professional service, but Nelson said Nebraska case law defines professional acts and services as those requiring “special learning or attainments of some kind.”

“The allegations in the Beatrice Six complaints involve ‘decision-making based on an officer’s training and experience,’ ” Nelson wrote. “The Gage County sheriff and his deputies investigated the rape and murder of Helen Wilson by using law enforcement’s specialized decision-making process.”