COLUMBIA — Ryan Ferguson may not receive the $11 million he was awarded Monday in federal court.
According to a settlement agreement, the city of Columbia will pay out $2.75 million of the $11 million judgment issued by U.S. District Court Judge Nanette Laughrey for violating Ferguson’s civil rights during the homicide investigation of former Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
Six former investigators with the Columbia Police Department were named in the lawsuit, so the city and their insurance companies are on the hook for some of the damages.
An agreement between the officers and Ferguson signed last week stipulates that Ferguson will receive only up to $2.75 million in damages in exchange for the officers’ settling the liability portion of the lawsuit. The city and its former investigators agreed to settle the lawsuit with Ferguson to avoid a lengthy trial with uncertain results, according to a city news release.
Ferguson may still seek the remaining damages from another insurance company, which denied the officers coverage.
On Tuesday, Jeff Westbrook, who is one of the officers named in the suit, confirmed the terms of the settlement agreement and defended himself and his former coworkers. He said the officers only signed to protect themselves.
The officers deny any wrongdoing in the Heitholt investigation, the release states. The former police detectives named in the lawsuit are Bryan Liebhart, Jeff Nichols, Lloyd Simons, John Short and Jeff Westbrook, as well as current Columbia Police public information officer Latisha Stroer. The civil lawsuit formerly named the city of Columbia, Boone County and Kevin Crane, who prosecuted the case, but those defendants were dropped.
Ferguson served nearly a decade of a 40-year prison sentence for first-degree murder before his conviction was vacated in November 2013. The $100 million civil rights lawsuit filed by attorney Kathleen Zellner alleged the six Columbia police officers fabricated evidence and coerced false witness testimony, which led to Ferguson’s conviction. Zellner is a wrongful conviction attorney best known for representing Steven Avery, the subject of the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”
Clarendon Insurance will pay its insurance policy limit of $2.25 million and the city will pay its self-insured retention of $500,000, city spokesman Steve Sapp said. He said he did not know exactly when the payments would be made.
"That $500,000 does not include the nearly $300,000 paid" to the law firm of "Shreimann, Rackers & Franka for their work," Sapp said.
Laughrey said during the bench trial Monday that she had not seen the settlement agreement.
The agreement states payment of $2.25 million will be made “immediately” and $100,000 will be set aside for a defense fund for the officers or city in case anyone seeks a monetary judgment against them for their investigation of the Heitholt murder. If no such lawsuit happens within three years, the $100,000 will be released to Ferguson.
The settlement agreement notes that an additional insurance company, St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co., provided up to $10 million in liability insurance for the officers but denied them coverage for any damages that would be awarded to Ferguson. The officers think the insurance company wrongfully denied them of a defense and coverage for Ferguson’s damages, the agreement states, but they chose to sign out of concern for their personal assets.
The news release states that if Ferguson wants the remainder of his $11 million award, he will need to seek it from St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co.
The settlement agreement pointedly implies that Ferguson will seek recovery through a lawsuit against the insurance company that denied coverage.
The agreement also states that the officers may take part in legal action with Ferguson against the company to claim the damages.
Zellner was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.