Minnesota Wrongful Death Lawsuit Result in an Award of $591,000

After a week-long wrongful death trial in Minnesota, the family members of a twenty-two-year-old college student killed on a bicycle have said that while they are grateful for the jury award of $591,000. However, they would have preferred that the two men they blame for their son’s death be forced to spend time in prison. Felony murder and battery charges were dismissed against both defendants.

Sad details here. Apparently, the deceased disagreed with a member of a college hockey team. That member and several other players and recruits were said to have consumed 100 shots of alcohol that night. After the disagreement, the deceased apparently fled the bar on a bicycle, fleeing for his life while being chased by the boys. There were differing accounts of whether the boy was pushed, and by whom or whether his high level of intoxication caused him to crash. Regardless of fault, it is clear that the night was riddled with poor judgment and misconduct and that the death of this young man was absolutely senseless.

This garbage happens in college and usually does not end in death.  Kids drink too much and do stupid things and, usually, no real harm is done.  But sometimes things go really wrong, as they did in this case and this tragedy will impact this boy’s family for the rest of their lives.

Included in the judgment was $25,000 in punitive damages against one of the boys and $100,000 in punitive damages against the other.

Parents’ Anger About Criminal Charges

So often in wrongful death cases our lawyers handle, we focus on the civil case and the parents cannot get their minds off the criminal charges, usually the lack of criminal charges in motor vehicle accident cases.  The parents in this case felt justice was not served. They are disappointed with a plea agreement in which one of the players pled guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct, and aggravated battery and accessory to murder charges were dropped. The parents believe a conviction should have been made based on the evidence they have seen.

Criminal Charges in Wrongful Death Auto Accident Cases Absent Alcohol

In car accidents resulting in fatalities, criminal charges can be filed if the driver was found to have been operating the vehicle recklessly or negligently, such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or driving at excessive speeds. However, in many cases, accidents are just that, accidental, and not the result of criminal behavior.

So determining whether a person should face criminal charges for a fatal car accident can be challenging. The prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver acted with criminal intent, such as an intent to cause harm or reckless disregard for human life. In some cases, proving that a driver acted with criminal intent may be difficult, and civil actions may be pursued instead. This is the law.  But, understandably, it frustrates families.

This case is a little different because there really was criminal intent.  But it reminds me of our client’s frustration and how settlement money is sometimes secondary to their quest for justice.

Minnesota Wrongful Death Law

Minnesota’s wrongful death law provides a legal avenue for the families of deceased individuals to seek compensation for their losses when the death was caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of another party. This is purely a statutory creation designed to hold responsible parties accountable and to provide financial support to the decedent’s survivors.

Key Elements of Minnesota Wrongful Death Law

  1. Definition and Basis
    • A wrongful death claim arises when a person’s death is caused by the wrongful act or negligence of another. The basis for a wrongful death claim in Minnesota is similar to that of a personal injury claim, except the injured party is deceased.
  2. Statutory Framework
    • Minnesota’s wrongful death statutes are outlined in Chapter 573 of the Minnesota Statutes. These laws set forth the procedures and limitations for filing a wrongful death claim.
  3. Eligible Claimants
    • The wrongful death action must be brought by the trustee for the next of kin. The court appoints the trustee, who then represents the interests of the decedent’s survivors. Minn. Stat. § 573.02, subd. 3 mandates that a written petition for a trustee must be submitted by the decedent’s next of kin. Apart from the requirement that the petition be in writing, the statute does not specify any additional criteria for what constitutes a petition for the appointment of a trustee.
    • For the purposes of the wrongful death statute, “next of kin” refers to blood relatives who are part of the beneficiary class defined under Minn. Stat. § 524.2-103, the intestacy statute. Eligible claimants typically include the decedent’s spouse, children, parents, grandparents, and siblings. This definition explicitly excludes stepchildren.
  4. Damages
    • Damages in a wrongful death case in Minnesota can include:
      • Loss of income and financial support that the decedent would have provided.
      • Loss of companionship, guidance, and protection.
      • Emotional suffering and grief of the survivors.
      • Medical expenses incurred prior to the decedent’s death.
      • Funeral and burial expenses.
      • Other compensatory damages that the court finds just and equitable.
    • Unlike some states, Minnesota does not cap the amount of damages that can be awarded in wrongful death cases.
  5. Statute of Limitations
    • In Minnesota, there are two main dates of interest in a wrongful death lawsuit.  Such a claim must be filed within three years of the date of death. Additionally, the claim must be initiated within six years of the date of the wrongful act or omission that caused the death. Failure to file within these time frames typically results in the claim being barred.
  6. Burden of Proof
    • The plaintiff (trustee) must prove that the defendant’s wrongful act or negligence directly caused the decedent’s death. This involves demonstrating that the defendant owed a duty of care to the decedent, breached that duty, and as a result, caused the fatal injuries.
  7. Comparative Fault
    • Minnesota follows the rule of comparative fault. If the decedent is found to be partially at fault for the incident that caused their death, the damages awarded to the plaintiffs may be reduced proportionately.  So, according to the comparative fault statute, a person’s contributory fault does not prevent them from recovering damages in an action as long as their contributory fault is not greater than the fault of the person from whom they are seeking recovery. Minn. Stat. § 604.01, subd. 1. However, if the decedent is found to be more than 50% at fault, the plaintiffs is barred from recovering any damages.
  8. Distribution of Damages
    • The compensation awarded in a wrongful death claim is distributed among the next of kin according to their level of dependency on the decedent and the losses they have suffered. The court oversees the distribution to ensure it is fair and equitable.
  9. Punitive Damages:
    • While compensatory damages are aimed at compensating the survivors, punitive damages may also be awarded in cases where the defendant’s actions were particularly egregious or malicious. These are intended to punish the defendant and deter similar conduct in the future.
  10. Settlement and Trial
    • Many wrongful death cases in Minnesota are settled out of court through negotiations between the parties. However, if a settlement cannot be reached, the case may proceed to trial, where a judge or, more likely, a jury will determine the outcome based on the evidence presented.
Contact Information