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Families of men killed by a police cruiser awarded $1.37 million each

However, municipal tort liability cap and UIM policy limit recovery

Author / Coordinator: Alice Sherren Brommer
Minnesota Lawyer
June 2000

The families of two men killed when a speeding police cruiser crashed into their truck on Thanksgiving Day in 1998 are entitled to compensation of $1.37 million each, a Hennepin County District Court jury decided earlier this month.

However, the municipality liability and underinsured motorist (UIM) limits cap that recovery at $400,000 for each family. The city of Minneapolis had already paid the families of Jeffrey Carlson, 23, and Steven Winkel, 27, $300,000 — the statutory liability limit for municipalities. The families will receive $100,000 each from State Farm Insurance, which had that amount of UIM coverage on Winkel’s truck.

The verdicts are the largest awards ever handed down in the state of Minnesota for “unmarried men in their 20s in a situation where the families weren’t claiming any economic dependence,” according to James R. Schwebel, who represented Winkel’s family. Martin T. Montilino, who represented Carlson’s family, explained that the jury members were aware that the men were killed in a car accident, but were not told that the driver of the car was a police officer or that liability limits would cap recovery. The jury was simply charged with determining damages, explained Montilino.

The large jury awards were a result of believable testimony and creative and persuasive arguments, said Schwebel.

“It is extremely difficult for a jury to equate the loss of a human being with a dollar amount,” he observed, “so we gave the jury an intelligent and workable formula” along with suggested dollar amounts to help them calculate the damages. It helps to move the argument away from physical objects and economic contributions and instead focus on relationships within the family, added Montilino.

“The travesty is that there’s $970,000 for each of these families that remains uncompensated because of the statutory cap on municipal liability. There isn’t any legal way to collect the damages,” said Schwebel.

Schwebel and Montilino encourage individual lawyers and groups, such as the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association and consumer alliances, to try to persuade the Legislature to raise the municipal liability caps. Neither Schwebel nor Montilino anticipate that the public would oppose legislation raising a municipality’s liability — even though the money used to pay claims often comes out of the public coffers.

“My impression of taxpayers is that they are good, warm, human citizens who are always happy to have tax money intelligently spent, and irate when it is spent stupidly,” observed Schwebel.

Montilino added that “most taxpayers would want to make sure that legitimate obligations of a city or municipality are taken care of appropriately.”

“This case is ‘exhibit A’ in showing injustice because no longer are we speculating on how our community might value this loss. We just had seven people in our community value this loss,” remarked Schwebel. Unfortunately, even if the liability caps are eventually raised, they won’t be applied retroactively, Schwebel added.