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Idaho risk pool must defend city, officers in wrongful conviction case

Idaho Falls

An Idaho counties risk pool must defend the city of Idaho Falls and its police officers in litigation filed in connection with an innocent man’s imprisonment for rape and murder, a state court ruled.

In May 1998, a jury issued a guilty verdict against Christopher Conley Tapp for a woman’s 1996 rape and murder, and he remained in prison until 2017, when he was released and another man convicted for the crimes, according to last week’s ruling by the state court in Idaho Falls in Idaho Counties Risk Management Program Underwriters vs. City of Idaho Falls, et al.

In October 2020, Mr. Tapp filed suit against several men who had been Idaho Falls police officers and the city in federal district court in connection with his experience.

Boise-based Idaho Counties Risk Management Program Underwriters filed suit in the Idaho Falls court seeking a declaration it had no obligation to defend the city and police officers in the litigation.

The court ruled against the risk pool, saying its policies, which covered the period October 2003 through October 2019, began after Mr. Tapp was charged, convicted and incarcerated.

However, a policy provision “only requires a personal injury during the policy period,” the ruling said.  This “includes mental anguish and damages from a wrongful arrest, wrongful conviction and wrongful imprisonment,” the ruling said.

As a result, “the policy provides coverage to the City for all damages it is obligated to pay for such personal injuries during the Policy Period, regardless of when the personal injuries first occurred,” the ruling said.

The ruling said there is coverage for acts performed in the course of the police officers’ duties “as long as such acts were not performed with malice or criminal intent.”

The charges made by Mr. Tapp in his lawsuit include “intentional, bad faith, willful, wanton, reckless, grossly negligent, negligent, and/or deliberately indifferent acts and omissions,” the decision said.

“It is clear that some allegations in the complaint invoke coverage and a duty to defend while others do not. … The fact that some allegations refer to conduct not covered under the policy does not defeat the duty to defend,” the court said in denying the risk pool’s motion for summary judgment.

Alexander T. Brown, a partner with Lathrop GPM in Kansas City, Missouri,  who represents Mr. Tapp, said the ruling joins others that make coverage available “from the initial arrest through the eventual exoneration — thereby helping future exonerees and insured civil rights defendants vindicate their respective rights.”

Idaho Falls attorney Alan C. Bradshaw, a partner with Manning Curtis Bradshaw & Bednar PLLC in Salt Lake City, said in a statement that the city “believes that the Court made a correct legal ruling under the policies’ plain language including that ICRMP is obligated to pay for the defense costs of the City and the other defendants.” 

The attorney for the risk pool did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2019, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling and ruled a Travelers Cos. Inc. unit and Scottsdale Insurance Co. were obligated to defend a Mississippi county in a case in which three men were wrongly convicted of raping and murdering a woman in 1979. Lathrop Gage LLC represented the men’s estates in the case.