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Minn. SC says Diocese only has to pay half of $224,000 award

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Apr 27, 2012


ST. PAUL, Minn. (Legal Newsline) - The Minnesota Supreme Court, in a ruling earlier this month, said a defendant must pay only its portion of a damages award, as attributed to it by a jury, under a state statute.

In its April 18 opinion, the Court affirmed a decision by the state Court of Appeals.

Plaintiff Alice Ann Staab and her husband, Richard, attended a social event at the Holy Cross Parish School in Kimball, Minn., in April 2005.

The school is owned and operated by respondent Diocese of St. Cloud's Holy Cross Parish.

Staab, who relies on a non-motorized wheelchair for mobility, was leaving the school when her chair went over what was described as an unmarked 5-inch drop-off. Her husband was pushing her chair through an open doorway at the time.

Staab fell forward out of her wheelchair onto a cement sidewalk and was injured as a result.

After her fall, she sued the Diocese, alleging that it failed to use reasonable care to protect her from an unreasonable risk of harm caused by the conditions at the school.

The Diocese was the only named defendant. Staab's husband was not named as a party to the lawsuit, by either her or the Diocese.

In this case, a jury found that the Diocese and Richard Staab were each negligent and that their negligence caused Alice Ann Staab's injuries.

The jury attributed 50 percent of the negligence to the Diocese and 50 percent to Richard Staab.

It awarded compensatory damages of $224,200.70: $50,000 for past pain, disability, disfigurement, embarrassment and emotional distress; and $174,200.70 for past health care expenses.

However, a district court ruled that Minn. Stat. § 604.02, subdivision 1, does not apply in an action against only one defendant and ordered the Diocese to pay the entire damages award.

The Diocese appealed.

The appeals court reversed, holding that under the plain language of section 604.02, subdivision 1, the Diocese must pay only in proportion to the percentage of fault attributed to it by the jury.

The state's high court agreed.

Justice Christopher J. Dietzen explained that when a jury attributes 50 percent of the negligence that caused a compensable injury to the sole defendant in a civil action and 50 percent to a nonparty to the lawsuit, section 604.02, subdivision 1, requires that the defendant contribute to the award only in proportion to the fault attributed to the defendant by the jury.

"We conclude that whether 'two or more persons are severally liable' for purposes of section 604.02, subdivision 1, is determined at the time the tort was committed and not at the time of judgment in a civil action arising from the tort. The predicate to this interpretation is that the Legislature did not modify the common law rule that liability is created at the moment a tort is committed, and therefore the statute incorporates the common law rule," Dietzen wrote in the majority's 21-page ruling.

"Moreover, 'persons' and 'parties' in the statute extends to all persons who are parties to the tort, regardless of whether they are parties to the lawsuit."

He added, "Because the statute does not explicitly state that it applies at the time of judgment, this interpretation is reasonable, and the most logical."

The Court remanded the case to the district court to enter judgment in favor of Staab, adjusting the amount the Diocese must pay to 50 percent of the $224,200.70 jury award.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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