MHB Client Receives Record Settlement for Wrongful Imprisonment
In late October MHB lawyers, and their co-counsel at the Portland insurance firm of Parsons Farnell & Grein and the Connelly Law Offices, finalized the largest settlement for wrongful conviction and imprisonment in Washington history, a total of $26 million paid to two men who spent almost two decades in prison for a crime they did not commit. The resolution brought an end to more than six years of litigation by MHB on behalf of Alan Northrop and by the Connelly Law Offices on behalf of Alan’s co-defendant Larry Davis, seeking compensation for their years of loss.
Micah LeBank, one of the lawyers Mr. Davis, described the case and the settlement in detail in the December 2016 edition of the Washington Association of Justice Trial News:
“Davis and Northrop had been convicted in 1993 in Clark County for a rape crime. Their conviction was based solely on the eye-witness testimony of a single witness, the victim, who had been blindfolded at the time of the rape and was unable to identify these men without assistance from the lead detective on the case. The County withheld critical evidence from the defense, including evidence relating to other suspects who matched the description of the perpetrator, evidence regarding the manner in which the identifications were obtained, and additional notes and other exculpatory evidence.
“After serving over ten years in prison, Davis and Northrop contacted the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington. The Innocence Project Northwest then began to undertake the long and arduous task of having DNA evidence examined in order to prove their innocence. They were met with resistance from Clark County, which initially refused to allow the testing and then, even after a judge ordered that evidence be tested, lost and then destroyed key pieces of evidence, including the victim’s shirt and pants. Testing from twenty-seven pieces of evidence completely exonerated Davis and Northrop and the profiles of two other men were found. This included a matching male profile that was found on both pubic hair combings and fingernail scrapings from the victim. Davis and Northrop were excluded. Based on this newly discovered DNA evidence, the trial court vacated the convictions and Davis and Northrop were exonerated. By this time, however, both men had served over seventeen years in prison for a crime that they did not commit.
Lawyers at the National Innocence Project then asked MHB to join in a review the case to determine if Davis and Northrop’s wrongful imprisonment was the result of actionable civil rights violations. The review found sufficient evidence of misconduct to proceed. With MHB representing Northrop and the Connelly Law Offices representing Davis, the two filed claims against Clark County and Detective Donald Slagle in Federal Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for due process violations and negligence. After more than two years of litigation, and nine days into a federal jury trial, the defendants agreed to entry of a judgment against them in favor of Davis and Northrop totaling $35,000,000—just over $1 million per year of wrongful imprisonment. Of that judgment, the County defendants agreed to pay $10.5 million in cash, and in lieu of payment of the remaining amount, assign their rights against their insurers.
Mr. LeBank’s article describes the complicated proceedings that led up to, and followed, this settlement.
“During discovery in the underlying case we learned that Clark County was insured through the Washington Counties Risk Pool (“WCRP”) and that WCRP had denied coverage, both defense and indemnity, because it claimed that the “occurrence” as defined in the policy occurred at the time of Davis and Northrop’s convictions in 1993, before Clark County joined the pool. Clark County was therefore left to its own devices to defend the lawsuit and to pay any subsequent judgment. …
“On November 4, 2014, before the settlement was even finalized, WCRP filed a preemptive declaratory judgment action against Clark County, Slagle, Davis, and Northrop in Cowlitz County Superior Court asking that the assignment be found null and void in violation of the interlocal agreement. WCRP had filed a similar action in Cowlitz County in another case against Clark County and had been successful. Shortly thereafter, Lexington Insurance Company, who provided excess insurance under the WCRP policies, joined the declaratory judgment action. Davis and Northrop filed counterclaims for breach of contract, insurance bad faith, and claims under the Insurance Fair Conduct Act (“IFCA”).
Two more years of litigation then ensued, as WCRP and its insurance allies made one argument after another in an effort to evade the responsibilities imposed on insurers by Washington law. A Cowlitz County judge ruled in WCRP’s favor, but acknowledged enough uncertainty about her ruling to warrant immediate appellate review. The Washington Supreme Court granted direct review of the case, because of the importance of the issues raised by WCRP’s claim it was not bound by insurance law. After briefing and argument, while awaiting an opinion, the insurers asked for mediation. Two full days of multi-sided mediation did not resolve the case, but continued efforts by the mediator and lead insurance counsel Ian Hale finally did. The case ultimately resolved for a total additional payment of $15.5 million, which brought Davis and Northrop’s combined recovery to $26 million.
Alan Northrop was represented throughout this litigation by MHB lawyers Tim Ford, David Whedbee and Tiffany Cartwright. Larry Davis was represented by Jack Connelly and Micah LeBank; and both men were represented in the insurance litigation by Ian Hale and Michael Farnell of Parsons Farnell & Grein, and by Phil Talmadge of Talmadge Fitzpatrick.