Plaintiffs in 25 of 30 lawsuits against former Costa Mesa dentist Tony Protopappas, convicted of murder in the deaths of three patients, could find themselves with a penniless defendant if his malpractice insurance carrier is allowed to refuse coverage.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Orange County Superior Court, Glacier General Assurance Co. of Missoula, Mont., asked to be relieved of its obligation to pay malpractice claims against Protopappas in 25 cases because the company claims that Protopappas failed to pay a required $2,000 deductible within 14 days of each claim. Failure to pay the deductible means that Glacier does not have to defend him or pay any damages those plaintiffs might win, the suit claims.
Santa Ana lawyer Frank J. Barbaro, who is handling 14 of the cases, said Thursday that he will fight Glacier's suit.
A victory for the insurance company could mean that plaintiffs would have trouble collecting damages if they won their suits. Protopappas filed for personal bankruptcy in December, 1983, and has said he is destitute.
Glacier's suit also claims that Protopappas' July 31, 1984, convictions on second-degree murder charges constitute criminal acts, which it says are excluded from coverage under the policy.
The company will defend and pay up to $500,000 in damages in five cases in which Protopappas paid the deductible, but the insurer wants the court to determine which five cases, the suit stated.
Under the policy, the suit alleges, Glacier is liable only for $500,000 for any single claim or for all claims in a year. Defense costs, including attorney fees, also come out of the policy limits, the company claims.
Glacier attorney James M. Goodman of San Francisco declined to comment.
Barbaro claims the insurance company's conduct indicates that it is not dealing in good faith and is opening itself up to a so-called bad-faith lawsuit.
Says Firm Has Refused
He said state law requires that insurance companies negotiate claims in good faith and that they settle claims when liability is clear. Instead, he said, Glacier has refused to negotiate.
Barbaro claims that the criminal convictions do not mean the company can be relieved from the civil claims filed by the patients' survivors.
"There's a whole line of California Supreme Court cases that is very clear that there is coverage," he said.