The People v. Minneapolis

Janet Hamline

The big scene at the July 30 meeting of the Minneapolis City Council revolved around a proposed ban on cigarette machines around town. The measure ended up passing on a 13-0 vote, but only after an hour's worth of very unanimous bickering spurred on by a chorus of placard-waving, antismoking activists who had packed the chambers. Compared to that spirited debate, everything else on the agenda--some 77 items in all--was run through with perfunctory efficiency. Bonds were issued, moneys for neighborhood spending allocated, construction bids accepted, permit variations granted. Oh, and the council also agreed to spend the public's money settling three lawsuits against the city--to the tune of $131,655.45.

That, too, was business as usual. The number of cases and the dollar amounts vary, but hardly a meeting passes without a few such out-of-court settlements being approved, per recommendation of the Office of the City Attorney. At a get-together two weeks prior, the council had approved paying out $164,000 to settle three other cases. Just last week the quorum gave the green light to four settlements totaling $68,649.48.

The Minneapolis City Council has authorized the spending of roughly $2.8 million for settlements, attorneys' fees, and other costs, in 47 separate lawsuits, claims, and other legal cases from January 1 through its meeting last Friday. (That amount doesn't include the pocket-change claims that never even make it to the city attorney's desk.)

The $2.8 million figure is well ahead of the pace of recent years, which has actually shown the city's liability costs declining. According to figures provided by the city attorney's office, the total liability tab in 1998 came to just over $3.3 million for claims, litigation settlements, workers' compensation settlements, judgments, attorneys' fees ordered by the court, and outside attorney contracts. That continued a downward trend: In 1996 costs were close to $3.9 million, and in 1997 nearly $3.6 million. Those figures were down substantially from costs of $5.6 million in 1995, when the city was getting socked with a spate of excessive-force claims against its police officers.

This year's numbers are up from those in 1996-1998 because of settlements in two specific police-related cases. In February the city paid $300,000 each to the families of Jeffrey Carlson and Steven Winkel, who were killed in November 1998 when a squad car without its lights or siren on sped through a residential intersection and totaled their pickup truck. In April the council approved a total of $750,000 for victims of the December 1998 crash at the annual Holidazzle parade in which a police van plowed into a crowd of spectators, killing two and injuring several others.

Those incidents alone account for nearly half of all 1999 payouts. The decisions were atypical: Local officials elected to pay the maximum amounts they could be held liable for, rather than waste expensive time arguing that the city wasn't at fault. Under Minnesota law, the most a municipality can be required to pay is $300,000 for a single case, and $750,000 for "any number of claims arising out of a single occurrence." (Those limits go out the window in federal civil-rights cases against the city, however; damages in those have exceeded the state caps.)

Both the Carlson-Winkel collision and the Holidazzle crash were big news, detailed in nightly newscasts and in daily papers. Most of the cases that wind up costing the city money don't garner much media coverage. The range of lawsuits runs the gamut from the banal to the comic to the tragic: You'll see cases in which a citizen slipped and fell on a public sidewalk, a snowplow or other city vehicle collided with a car, police clobbered suspects with flashlights, and the city's own workers claimed mistreatment on the job.

Of these cases, those involving the Minneapolis Police Department are still the most costly. According to an overview put together earlier this year at the behest of Police Chief Robert Olson, between July 1, 1996 and November 30, 1997, the city attorney's office handled 63 claims against the MPD. Twenty-five of them (about 40 percent) were settled out of court. Of the 38 that were litigated, the city won nearly 90 percent. Between December 1, 1997 and November 24, 1998, the office disposed of another 69 claims against the police department, 29 of which were settled and 40 of which were litigated (the city prevailed in all but 3, and won either summary judgment or dismissal in 20).

According to Deputy City Attorney Michael Norton, at any given time there are, on average, 1,000 open lawsuits and claims against the city. The bulk of these are handled by nine assistant city attorneys. The city attorney's office is allowed by law to settle any claim for less than $1,000 without bringing the matter before the city council, and is generally able to make settlement offers of up to $10,000 without prior council discussion.  

The ability to fight city hall in court is a fairly modern concept. Once upon a time, cities and other government bodies in the U.S. could claim "sovereign immunity" from such actions, a concept handed down from English common law which sprung from the belief that "the king can do no wrong." In this state, that all changed after a landmark Minnesota Supreme Court decision in 1962.

Plaintiffs and their attorneys can thank angry parent Charles Spanel, who sued the Mounds View School District over injuries his five-year-old son received from a defective slide in a kindergarten classroom. In its ruling, the state's highest court declared that "sovereign immunity is an unjust and archaic doctrine....The court overrules immunity as a defense available to school districts, municipal corporations, and other subdivisions of government," thereby clearing the way for Minnesotans to sue their local governing bodies.

The following year the state Legislature passed a law restricting such actions by setting amounts for maximum liability that local governments could be made to pay: $25,000 in the case of wrongful death, $50,000 in other cases, and up to $300,000 for any group of claims arising from the same incident. Over time those caps have periodically increased. Part of the rationale behind the law is to limit the cost to taxpayers--these settlements come out of public coffers, after all. Plaintiffs' attorneys are inclined to disagree, reasoning that were it not for such caps, wrongful death cases like the Carlson and Winkel crash would wind up costing the city a lot more money.

In Minneapolis scores of claims are settled by the city with little fanfare--$200 here for a public-sidewalk mishap, $500 there for a garbage-truck fender-bender. Judges tend to pressure litigants in such cases to settle quickly, and all parties usually agree on reasonable damage amounts. "You get the typical whiplash case," Norton says, "it's probably going to settle anywhere from five to about $15,000, give or take. That's just where those things settle for." But when it comes to police brutality, misconduct, and accident cases, council policy dictates that the office take a hard line in negotiations: "We have been directed by the council to be as aggressive as we can on supporting the police department where we believe the judgment of the officers can be viewed as reasonable by a judge or jury," Norton notes.

City Pages thought it might be illuminating to take a peek at just how much Minneapolis has spent this year settling the various suits filed against it. We requested and received copies of settlement letters from the Office of the City Attorney that outline the key points in cases, summarize their legal histories, and detail the reasoning behind the financial agreements reached between plaintiffs and the City. Those letters are typically addressed by the city attorney's office to Second Ward council member Joan Campbell, who chairs the Ways and Means/Budget Committee, which forwards authorization proposals to the full council.

Minneapolis is sued several hundred times every year. "I got in three yesterday," Norton offered wryly one recent afternoon in his office. "I haven't gone through my mail yet today--I don't know whether there's any in there or not." It's a good bet there are: Claims arrive at the city attorney's downtown office like clockwork--stacks of them, stuffed into envelopes bearing the return addresses of sue-'em-yourself citizens and private attorneys alike, all seeking compensation from the city's deep pockets for every conceivable wrong.


City Council Gives Thumbs Up to Three-Figure Settlement Over One Digit

Purcell v. City of Minneapolis et al.

Sometimes it is simply cheaper for the city to settle a case. Sometimes it is really cheap. In this case, Becky Purcell claimed to have been wounded "by a door that was allegedly opened in a negligent manner by a Minneapolis police officer. The door violently struck plaintiff in the thumb causing injury to her thumb and a whiplash type injury to her neck. The officer who allegedly did this cannot say whether or not it happened. He was on duty at the time but has no recollection of such an event."

Purcell's initial demand was for $9,700. Ultimately she agreed to the city's proposal for significantly less: $500. According to the letter from the city attorney's office outlining the settlement, the litigation costs of doing an independent medical examination and deposing other witnesses would have greatly exceeded the city's offer.

The price tag for this one makes it the smallest settlement approved by the council this year. Attorney Mark Lofstrom, who represented Purcell, recalls that after the claim was served against the city--it was never filed in court, putting it in the category of "hip pocket" lawsuits--his client simply "wanted out. She was just tired of it." Of the $500, Lofstrom says, "I think that was the only offer they ever made--first and only. It wasn't the biggest case in the world."  

Approved: May 21.


Bonk! Cherry Picker Conks Citizen Noggin: Jury Says City Is 51 Percent to Blame

Evans v. City of Minneapolis

Deanna Evans was walking to work on the morning of February 9, 1996 when she and a city worker, who was busy changing a stoplight at the corner of 26th Street and Cedar Avenue, crossed paths: The cherry picker bearing the city employee was lowered onto Evans's head.

Evans was rushed to the hospital by ambulance, where she was treated and released. As a result of the accident, Evans claimed "a soft tissue injury to the cervical spine" which caused neck pain, headaches, and insomnia. Her chiropractor testified that her injuries were permanent; a doctor testifying for the city said they weren't. Unlike the Case of the $500 Thumb, this one did not go away easily.

At trial in January, the jury found that both the city and the cherry-picker-bonked pedestrian shared some of the blame for the collision, but assigned the city's share of responsibility at 51 percent. The total tab for pain, disability, and emotional distress; future pain, disability, and emotional distress; medical and chiropractic expenses; and paying the plaintiff's costs and disbursements came to $41,965.63. The city's motion for a new trial was rebuffed, at which point the defendant admitted defeat: "In our opinion, an appeal would not be likely to succeed."

Attorney Larry Stern of Schwebel Goetz & Sieben, who represented Evans, says he thinks in this instance the city attorney's office underestimated his client. He recalls that before trial, their top settlement offer had been $5,000. "I don't think they were very wisely evaluating the case. It's kind of unique that someone is operating a cherry picker and lowers it on someone else's head."

Norton says his office believed the damages being sought were too high. (The city's contention was that Evans should have watched where she was going.) "Sometimes you do take a risk on liability. You make a judgment call. How can somebody run into a cherry picker?" he says. "It's not like this thing is a small machine." His office, he adds, figured "'A jury's just not going to believe this.' Well, obviously we were wrong."

Approved: May 7.


Snow on Cop's Boot Costs City More Than $4,000

Blanks v. City of Minneapolis

Under state law, you can't sue cities or other agencies for accumulations of snow and ice, "except when the condition is affirmatively caused by the negligent acts of the municipality." In this episode, Minneapolis was on the hook for a slight snowdrift on a police officer's sole: "On February 16, 1997, Police Officer Roy Nordos drove his squad car to the intersection of 42nd Avenue North and Lyndale Avenue North. Because he had snow on his boot, his foot slipped off the brake and the squad car collided with the stopped vehicle occupied by Mr. Ronnie Blanks." There was no major damage done to either vehicle, but Blanks was treated for neck and back injuries. In October 1998 the case went before an arbitrator, who returned a verdict of $14,580 for Blanks. The city attorney's office appealed, demanding a jury trial. The parties agreed to settle for $4,220.

Approved: February 19.


City Attorney Staffer's Fender-Bender Provides More Work for City Attorney's Office

Herron v. Thomas and City of Minneapolis

Because employees of the Office of the City Attorney don't use flashlights and Mace during depositions, there are few claims arising from their day-to-day conduct. It's the rest of the city's 5,000 employees that they usually worry about. But there's an exception to every rule.

On October 11, 1995, city attorney's office staffer Elizabeth Thomas was driving a city-owned vehicle on eastbound 36th Street when she changed lanes, striking a car driven by Lisa Herron--no relation to Eighth Ward council member Brian Herron. Herron's vehicle sustained damage in excess of its value; she was treated for neck, back, and shoulder injuries that racked up medical bills totaling $15,657.32.

As is typical, the plaintiff's attending physician and the doctor who testified for the city disagreed about the severity of the injuries. "At our request, Ms. Herron has been examined by Dr. Rodney Peterson, [who] has given his opinion that soft tissue injuries, which Ms. Herron may have suffered, have had adequate time to heal and that she does not have a permanent injury." Following arbitration (during which Herron's claim was valued at $27,000) and the city's appeal for a jury trial, the parties eventually struck a pretrial settlement for $14,500.  

Approved: August 13.


Cop Car Collisions You Didn't See on the Ten O'Clock News

Lee-Horace v. City of Minneapolis

On October 21, 1992, police officer Michael Strauss was on patrol in north Minneapolis when he received a call to respond to a fight. Strauss drove south on Thomas Avenue, a northbound one-way. At the intersection of Thomas and 26th Avenue North, his squad car collided with Dorothy Lee-Horace's vehicle, which spun counterclockwise and smashed into a utility pole. The problem for the city attorney's office? According to the summary submitted to the city council, "The police officer was not using his red lights or siren before the collision." Acknowledging that "liability is clear," the case was settled for $9,500.

Approved: August 13.


Bilges v. City of Minneapolis and Sporny.

Lauren Bilges was on his way to work early on June 30, 1995, riding his motorcycle southbound on Central Avenue. Meanwhile Ofcr. Brad Sporny was pulling his squad car out of a parking lot to head the same direction, but had some trouble: "As Sporny made his turn, a clipboard on the dash slid across and fell between the steering wheel and spotlight handle, jamming the steering wheel in a turning position. The squad car continued its arc to the right, crossing into the right (inner) traffic lane and coming to a stop just before hitting the curb." As the car slid perpendicular to traffic, Bilges hit its rear fender. He was thrown from his bike and sustained a fractured left wrist, lacerations to his head, and other injuries.

Bilges missed six months of work during his recovery. Again, the city attorney's office thought better than to bring the case into a courtroom. "The injury to his left arm was deemed permanent. The facts indicate that the city was at fault in this accident. Based on Plaintiff's medical expenses, wage loss, pain and suffering, temporary disability during lengthy medical treatment, and permanent injury, there is a risk that a jury could award substantially more than the recommended settlement." Settlement? $60,000.

Approved: June 25.


Yevsina et al. v. City of Minneapolis et al. and Ivanishina et al. v. City of Minneapolis et al.

On November 1, 1997, Ofcr. Hung Quoe Do answered the call to respond to a house ablaze. He flipped on his emergency lights and gave the squad's air horn a blast, but did not activate the siren. As luck would have it, Do ran a red light and crashed into a minivan, causing substantial damage to both vehicles.

Passenger Lyubov Yevsina spent several days in the hospital and was deemed to have suffered a back injury "which will permanently limit her life activities to some extent." Vera Ivanishina suffered head, spinal, and chest injuries. Again, the clear-cut facts of the case prompted the city attorney's office to recommend settling the matter: "In that Officer Do did not have his siren on when he entered the intersection, his squad was not an 'emergency vehicle.' This means that he violated the state statute prohibiting entering an intersection against a red light. The police department review found that the accident was preventable and that Do was at fault." The city settled with both Yevsina and Ivanishina for $7,250 each.

Approved: March 5 (Yevsina) and July 30 (Ivanishina)


Break a Leg! Suspected Public Beer Drinking, Overheard Profanity Cost City More Than $400,000

Patterson v. City of Minneapolis et al. and Jackson v. City of Minneapolis et al.

Setting aside wrongful death cases this year, this police brutality claim has been far and away the priciest of those the city has opted to settle. On the evening of November 29, 1995, maintenance supervisor Levitte Patterson took a break from his job at the Multifoods Tower to meet his brother, Tracy Jackson. While they were chatting outside a City Center convenience store, they were approached by Sgt. Robert Gretton and Ofcr. Matt Segulia, who thought they had seen Jackson with a beer in the complex's public areas earlier in the evening.

Nothing came of their conversation, but the officers claim that when they moved on--out of sight, but within earshot--the brothers unleashed profanities at them. The officers returned and asked to see picture identification from the Patterson and Jackson. When Patterson allegedly thrust his ID in Gretton's face with a "threatening motion," Segulia tried to restrain the man and "took him to the ground."

Things got worse: During the confrontation, Patterson's lower left leg was broken. Patterson and eyewitnesses said the leg was "broken with a black object, apparently a flashlight, after he had been placed in handcuffs." Patterson spent the night in the Hennepin County Jail, and did not go to the Hennepin County Medical Center until his release the next day. By then, he had developed a "compartment syndrome" in the leg--a decrease in blood supply--which required emergency treatment.  

According to the city attorney's assessment of the case, "The police officers report that they were not aware that the Plaintiff had broken his leg and cannot explain how the leg was broken." The tally: $375,000 (including attorneys' fees) in damages, $13,190.63 for a related workers' comp claim, and another $15,000 to settle a separate action by Patterson's brother. Total settlement costs to the city? $403,190.63.

Approved: May 21.


"Additional Force Was Applied"

Keacher v. City of Minneapolis et al.

While police chases have caused the city of Minneapolis its share of problems, this case revolved around what happened after the chase was over. Columbia Heights police were pursuing Alan Keacher, who was on his motorcycle, for a traffic violation on September 5, 1990; the adventure spilled over into Minneapolis, and Minneapolis police took over. After a lengthy pursuit, they ultimately boxed him in at the intersection of Lowry and Central avenues in northeast Minneapolis.

From there, accounts vary as to what happened next. Keacher professed that he offered no resistance, but was "forearmed" off his bike and Maced, punched, kicked, and struck on the head with a flashlight or baton. Officers claimed they pushed Keacher off his bike "to prevent further flight"; at that point, they said, the suspect began kicking and swinging his arms: "Additional force was applied in order to subdue him, including use of Mace and a flashlight. Two eyewitnesses claim Keacher did not physically resist arrest."

Keacher suffered lacerations on his head and left eye, as well as a shoulder sprain, and bruises on his back, ribs, and arm. As the city attorney's office noted, "There was no auto accident during the chase to account for his injuries." At a closed session on January 15, the city council approved negotiations toward a settlement "within certain limits"--talks that ended in a compensation amount of $30,000.

Approved: February 5.


South Side Search-and-Seizure Suit Socks City

Murray v. City of Minneapolis et al.

On October 13, 1995, officers responded to a call from a woman in south Minneapolis. She wanted help in retrieving her one-year-old daughter. The father of the child lived with his wife and their children at the home of his brother--plaintiff Tracey Murray; he had his daughter in the house when the call came. When officers were handed conflicting custody orders, which showed that the father had a right to temporary custody or visitation, they informed the woman that they could not get involved in what was a civil dispute.

Then things got complicated: Officers say they asked who was taking care of the child and were told that nobody was--a claim denied by the adults in the house. The officers decided that there were risks to the health and safety of the toddler, and requested that Murray give her to the mother. Murray refused, and the officers informed him they intended to search the premises.

When Murray tried to block the officers' path, they told him he was under arrest, and a struggle ensued: "Initially the officers used Mace and attempted to wrestle the plaintiff to the floor. As the struggle progressed, one officer applied a carotid neck restraint, while the other officer struck plaintiff several times in the face with his fist. At this point plaintiff, an epileptic, suffered a seizure."

Murray claimed emotional distress and ongoing problems with his vision after the incident. A settlement of $33,000 was hammered out for Murray and his attorney Larry Reed on the eve of trial in federal court.

Approved: March 5.


The Slip-And-Fall Case That Slid All the Way to the State Supreme Court

Ronald Wiederholt v. City of Minneapolis

One fine summer's day back in July 1993, Ronald Wiederholt and family headed down to Lake Harriet to do some in-line skating. Wiederholt dropped his family off and parked his car. He'd strapped on his skates and was heading toward the lake when he struck a raised part of the sidewalk and fell, hitting his shoulder on a metal guardrail.

As it turned out, a routine inspection a month earlier in front of the home at 2418 W. 42nd St. had revealed that part of the sidewalk had been pushed up by tree roots. A note was made, but the problem wasn't fixed. The city sought summary judgment, claiming immunity, and the district court granted the motion. The plaintiff appealed, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the judgment. The city then appealed to the state's supreme court, which ruled that the city had failed to obey a section in the city charter dictating that sidewalks found to be in disrepair must be attended to immediately.  

Before trial Wiederholt offered to settle the matter for $9,500, which settled the matter.

Approved: June 25.


I Wasn't Driving When I Was Plowed, I Was Plowed When I Was Driving

Van Nurden v. City of Minneapolis

This is one of two snowplow-car collisions Minneapolis has opted to settle so far this year--an acknowledgment, perhaps, that squad cars piloted by police aren't the only city vehicles that run red lights. Early on the morning of January 24, 1997, Candace Van Nurden was riding in a car traveling east on Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. When the driver, who had a green light, headed into the intersection at Second Avenue South, his trusty mount was struck by a scofflaw snowplow.

Van Nurden claimed neck and back injuries. The case settled for $7,500.

Approved: July 16


Down, Buck!

Dorr v. City of Minneapolis et al.

Randolph Dorr went to the Aquatennial Block Party on July 18, 1997, which K-9 officer Luther Koerner was patrolling with his canine partner, Buck. Koerner says he watched Dorr push people and throw a beer can toward a group sitting in a parking lot. Dorr admits tossing the beer can, but says he wasn't being disruptive. Koerner says Dorr resisted arrest, at which point he dropped Buck's leash. According to the city attorney's summary, "Buck attacked Dorr and bit him several times on the buttocks and thigh before Koerner could get Dorr handcuffed and Buck back under control."

The disorderly conduct charges against Dorr were ultimately dismissed; he suffered several permanent scars from the bite wounds to his leg and rear end. Parties chewed over a settlement amount during court-order mediation, and ultimately agreed on $8,000.

Approved: August 13.

Settle Up

A quick look at where the money went

January 1 - August 13, 1999

Wrongful death (MPD)
1.35 million

Excessive force (MPD)

Squad cars colliding with other vehicles

MPD, Misc.

Total police-related costs

Other city vehicle accidents

Slip-and-fall cases

Attorneys' fees

Stray-cherry-picker-related claims

City worker v. the City (workers' comp.)

City workers v. the City (not workers' comp.)




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