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McCarty v. City of Minneapolis

December 13, 2002

KATHERINE MCCARTY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS, MITCHELL LANZ, ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
CITY OF MINNEAPOLIS, RESPONDENT , MINNEAPOLIS DOWNTOWN COUNCIL, ET AL., DEFENDANTS, FEDERAL SIGNAL CORPORATION, RESPONDENT, AND FEDERAL SIGNAL CORPORATION, THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY AND CODE 3, INC., THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANTS, AND MINNEAPOLIS DOWNTOWN COUNCIL, THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF,
v.
HENNEPIN COUNTY, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANTS.



Hennepin County District Court File No. PI995847

Considered and decided by Minge , Presiding Judge, Wright, Judge, and Mulally, Judge.*fn1

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Even when a municipality's liability as a joint tortfeasor is capped by Minn. Stat. § 466.04 (2002), a remaining joint tortfeasor does not lose the benefit of Minn. Stat. § 604.02 (2002) limiting its share of liability.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Minge, Judge

Affirmed

OPINION

Mitchell Lanz, father and guardian of Erin and Michael Lanz, seeks review of a reduction in the amount of damages to be paid by Federal Signal Corporation because of the statutory limitations placed on minimally liable joint tortfeasors. Appellant argues that Federal Signal Corporation should be solely liable for damages above the liability cap on municipalities and that the statutory limitation on minimally liable joint tortfeasors is inapplicable. We affirm.

FACTS

At the Holidazzle Parade in downtown Minneapolis on the evening of December 4, 1998, Minneapolis police officer Thomas Sawina accidentally depressed the accelerator rather than the brake on a police van. As a result, the van lurched into a crowd of parade watchers. Two people were killed and many were seriously injured. Erin Lanz, then age seven, and her brother, Michael, then age four, were among the injured. Erin's injuries required the amputation of her right arm above the elbow.

The police van was equipped with an "after-market flasher device" manufactured by Federal Signal Corporation and installed by a city public works employee. The purpose of the device is to increase visibility of the vehicle. When the driver depresses the brake, the device causes the brake and back-up lights to flash rapidly. Expert testimony established that this device also had a negative side effect: latent electrical currents would disable the van's brake-shift interlock. The brake-shift interlock is the safety component that prevents shifting a vehicle from "park" to "drive" unless the driver has a foot on the brake pedal. As a result, when Officer Sawina accidentally pressed the accelerator instead of the brake pedal while shifting from "park" to "drive," the brake-shift interlock failed to perform and the van accelerated into the Holidazzle crowd, causing death and injury.

Mitchell Lanz, father and guardian of Erin and Michael, and other injured parties brought suit against the City of Minneapolis and Federal Signal Corporation. Plaintiffs claimed the city was liable for the negligence of Officer Sawina, and Federal Signal was negligent in failing to warn that use of the flasher device could cause the brake-shift interlock to disengage. Federal Signal filed a third-party claim against Ford Motor Company. Ford Motor Company ultimately settled with all plaintiffs, including the Lanzes. The jury awarded $3.815 million to Erin Lanz, $30,000 to Michael Lanz, and $172,455.06 to Mitchell Lanz. The jury apportioned liability 87.5% to the City of Minneapolis, 12.5% to Federal Signal, and 0% to Ford.*fn2

After trial, the district court limited and apportioned liability of the two defendants under Minnesota law. First, it applied Minn. Stat. § 466.04 (2002), which limits the tort liability of any municipality to $750,000*fn3 for all plaintiffs in a single occurrence and limits the tort liability of any municipality to $300,000 for a single plaintiff. As a result, the city's liability to Erin Lanz was capped at $300,000 and, due to the presence of numerous injured parties, liability to Michael Lanz was capped at $7,522; and liability to Mitchell Lanz was capped at $14,185. Second, the district court applied Minn. Stat. § 604.02 (2002), which limits the tort liability of defendants with 15% or less of fault to four times their share of liability, commonly termed the "15 x 4" rule. As a result, the court capped Federal Signal's liability at four times 12.5% or 50% of the verdict amount. The Lanzes' motion to amend the judgment was denied. The Lanzes appeal the judgment as to the City of Minneapolis and Federal Signal. The City of Minneapolis did not file a brief.

ISSUES

Does the ceiling on municipal liability in Minn. Stat. § 466.04 (2002) preclude the limit on liability of a joint tortfeasor in Minn. Stat. § 604.02 (2002) for damages in excess of ...


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