Dec. 11--CLAYTON -- St. Louis County may have failed to notify its insurer that a police sergeant had filed a discrimination lawsuit, which means the county might have to pay the multimillion-dollar verdict awarded to the officer.
Three insurance companies represented the county over the five years that Sgt. Keith Wildhaber sought any of 23 promotions, according to county officials, who are trying to determine if the companies were notified of the suit within the necessary time frame.
Notifying an insurer of a lawsuit is a standard practice for government agencies, as it allows the insurer to assist with the defense. Without notice, a company can deny coverage and not pay toward a verdict or settlement.
"We inherited a mess," said Winston Calvert, chief of staff for County Executive Sam Page. "But it's not going to be a mess forever."
County Councilman Tim Fitch said he plans to press county administrators about the matter.
"I have heard that St. Louis County has been told by our insurers that since the county did not notify them of the lawsuit, we may not be covered for any damages that our insurance company would have paid," he said Tuesday. "I'll inquire officially as to the status of our insurance coverage in the Wildhaber case and any other outstanding lawsuits the county has."
One of the county's insurance carriers, Starr Indemnity & Liability Co., said it does not comment on specific claims. Another carrier, the Scottsdale Insurance Co., did not return a call Tuesday for comment.
Wildhaber filed his lawsuit in 2017, alleging that police Chief Jon Belmar and his administration repeatedly passed him over for promotion to lieutenant because he's gay. He also claimed administrators retaliated against him for filing the suit. In October, a jury awarded Wildhaber nearly $20 million after a five-day trial.
Like most government agencies, the county pays what's known as a third-party administrator, or TPA, to ensure its insurance companies are informed of all claims made against it. The bulk of the claims these companies handle are related to worker's compensation filings. The St. Louis County contract requires its TPA, Clayton-based Claims Management Inc., to notify insurance carriers, county officials said.
An executive with Claims Management did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.
It's unclear whether Wildhaber's suit was included in the information the TPA shared with the companies. Contributing to the uncertainty is the fact that the county executive's office changed hands in April when former Executive Steve Stenger was indicted.
Also in April, Wildhaber's attorneys offered to settle the matter for $850,000. That's below the county's $2 million deductible, and the insurance companies don't require the county to notify them of a lawsuit if it's likely to result in payouts amounting to less than half of the deductible. In the county's case, that's less than $1 million.
But the county didn't respond to Wildhaber's settlement offer, and the case went to trial.
The lawsuit defined the discriminatory acts as each of the 23 times he was passed over for a promotion during the five years that Belmar has been chief.
How much the county will have to pay remains unclear. Ultimately, the county's payout will likely be less than $20 million.
Judge David Vincent III ordered both sides into mediation, which is scheduled to begin this month.
There are incentives for both sides to settle for far less. Wildhaber wouldn't have to give half of his punitive damages to the state as required by Missouri law. And the county wouldn't have to pay out as much.
But both are preparing for an appeal if they can't reach a settlement.
The lead county counselor at trial, Mike Hughes, has since announced his retirement, effective Dec. 31. The county hired the Lewis Rice law firm to handle post-trial hearings and other matters, which has so far cost $150,000.
Wildhaber recently retained Chip Robertson as part of his legal team. Robertson is a former Missouri Supreme Court judge who served as chief justice in the early 1990s.
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