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New Year’s Eve revels in Minnesota litigation

With the New Year’s Day falling mid-week this year, the usual frivolity of New Year’s Eve may be somewhat subdued. But even though 2014 begins on a Wednesday, the preceding New Year’s Eve is likely to be characterized by raucous behavior. The end-of-the-year revelry might even lead to litigation. If so, the legal actions would follow a legacy of New Year’s litigation on Minnesota. Here’s a glimpse of some Minnesota cases arising on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day.

Party Problems.  The insurance policy of a homeowner who provided alcohol for his underage daughter’s New Year’s Eve party did not cover injuries suffered in a subsequent automobile accident by partygoers in Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. v. Duffy, 618 N.W.2d 613 (Minn. App. 2000).  The case was brought by the homeowner’s insurer as a declaratory judgment action to negate its liability for the accident by teenage drinkers following the party.  The Court of Appeals held that there was no coverage because supplying alcohol to minors was wrongful and was not “an occurrence” under the policy. A motor vehicle exclusion in the policy also barred coverage by the carrier.

A partygoer who fell off a highway ramp while leaving a New Year’s Eve party was denied recovery in LePage v. Slate, 1997 WL 714712 (Minn. App. 1997) (unpublished).  The decedent was among a group of party revelers who were walking back to a car when they mistakenly walked off the off-ramp for highway I-94 in downtown Minneapolis, despite numerous warning signs to stay off the road. The Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit against the state for faulty design on grounds that the decedent “was a trespasser” because pedestrians were prohibited from the ramp.

A heavy-drinking New Year’s Eve partier who slipped and fell on a dark, wet hotel stairway at the site of a party also lost his personal injury case in Pangolas v. Calvet, 297 N.W. 741 (Minn. 1941). A jury found against the claimant, and the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s refusal to grant a new trial. The hotel where the incident occurred was not liable because inadequate lighting on the stairway did not cause the fall, and there was no evidence how the steps where the incident occurred had been wet or slippery “or who was responsible for getting them in that condition.”

Another floor-related incident on New Year’s Eve also did not result in premises liability in Smock v. Mankato Elks Club, 280 N.W. 851 (Minn. 1938).  A woman attending a New Year’s Eve party at a social club was injured when her dress caught on fire, which she alleged was due to flammable materials on the facility’s floor. She prevailed before the trial court, but the Supreme Court reversed on grounds of insufficient evidence of the club’s culpability. The facility was not liable because the evidence did not establish a “causal connection” between the accumulation of rubbish on the floor and the ensuing fire.

A hotel employee fired because he allowed a New Year’s Eve party at a hotel room he was occupying to get out of control was granted unemployment compensation benefits in Verhaigh v. CSM Corp., 2004 WL 422572 (Minn. App. 2004) (unpublished).  An Administrative judge ruled that the employee’s failure to properly supervise the party constituted disqualifying “misconduct.” But the Court of Appeals reversed because the hotel guest did not “deliberately” organize a “disruptive party” and when it got unruly his “non-action” was negligent, rather than intentional.

A farm assistant injured when his arm was caught in a farm implement on New Year’s Day was not entitled to coverage under the farmer’s liability insurance carrier in Arndt v. American Family Insurance Co., 394 N.W. 2d 791 (Minn. 1986).  The claimant was injured as he was unloading frozen corn stalks. His declaratory judgment action against the liability insurer was dismissed because the incident occurred on uninsured premises not covered by the policy. Although admittedly “harsh,” the result was attributed to the claimant’s “lack of diligence.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed a split jury verdict for an intoxicated partygoer who was injured after falling down a dimly-lit stairwell at a New Years’ Eve party.  Renswick v. Wenzel, 819 N.W.2d 198 (Minn. Ct. App. 2012).  A blood test revealed that the partygoer indulged in a cornucopia of alcohol, prescription medications, and other drugs before falling down a dark stairwell at the defendant’s home, knocking herself unconscious and breaking both wrists.  The Court affirmed the 50/50 jury verdict finding that it was reasonable for the jury to find both parties as fault; the defendant for failing to adequately illuminate the stairs; and the partygoer for imbibing excessive alcohol and drugs, an all-too-common New Year’s Eve occurrence.

Criminal Cases.  A challenge by a murderer inspired by New Year’s Eve to use the statutory insanity defense was rejected in State v. Schleicher, 672 N.W. 2d 550 (Minn. 2003). The defendant raised the defense under Minn. Stat. § 611.026, which exculpates one who does not “know the nature of the act, or that it was wrong.” His insanity assertion was based on his erratic behavior and thoughts, including his belief that he was “ground zero” for a nuclear war that would occur on New Year’s Eve. His challenge failed because his claim that the law was impermissibly vague was not raised at trial and, thus, could not be addressed “for the first time on appeal.”

Jurors thoughts about New Year’s Eve was an issue in a prosecutorial misconduct claim in State v. Lasnetski, 696 N.W. 2d 387 (Minn. App. 2005).  The Court of Appeals upheld a conviction of first-degree assault, despite the prosecutor’s comments in closing that the trial “has taken a long time already . . . [because] … this is New Year’s Eve…you probably have some other things on your mind as well.” The remark was not prejudicial because it could be “interpreted as a gesture of appreciation,” rather than an invitation to rule quickly.

A jacket seized from the home of the defendant’s mother led to convictions of burglary and sexual misconduct following a New Year’s Eve party in State v. Perske, 1999 WL 308595 (Minn. App. 1999) (unpublished).  The defendant had returned to the New Year’s Eve party after it ended, entered the home and groped the sleeping victim. A jacket observed at the scene was subsequently taken by the police from the defendant’s mother’s home in a warrantless search. The defendant’s suppression motion was denied, he was convicted and the Court of Appeals affirmed because the mother “implicitly gave her consent to search the home” by opening the door to allow an officer to enter the residence.

New Year’s festivities led to an assault conviction that was reversed due to multiple errors in the jury instructions in State v. Gebremariam, 590 N.W. 2d 781 (Minn. 1999).  The case arose out of an altercation that occurred during a party at a Rochester hotel when hostilities escalated and one of the participants threw beer and liquor bottles at others. The bottle-thrower was convicted of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon. But the Supreme Court reversed due to mistakes in charging the jury, including describing “dangerous weapon” and “great bodily harm” inconsistent with their statutory definitions.

A criminal defendant challenged the prosecution’s use a prior conviction in a first-degree murder trial, and won.  State v. Stewart, 2009 WL 365992 (Minn. App. 2009).  The defendant was accused of sexually abusing his friend’s nine-year-old daughter while driving home from a New Year’s party.  The defendant was convicted by a jury after the district court admitted evidence of his past conduct in sexually abusing another minor—evidence affectionately referred to by many in the criminal law world as “Spreigl” evidence.  The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction because the evidence of past sexual abuse was prejudicial and did not show a similar modus operandi, a key requirement for admission of Spriegl evidence.   

Another criminal case involved a gang-related drive-by shooting on New Year’s Eve in 2001.  State v. Lee, 683 N.W.2d 309 (Minn. 2004).  Police executed a search warrant on the home of the defendant, who was believed to be a member of the Imperial Gangsters street gang, and found stolen firearms (including one with the serial number scratched off), ammunition, and marijuana.  The Minnesota Supreme Court determined that the district court’s failure to give an accomplice jury instruction at trial, although incorrect, was harmless error due to the significant corroborating evidence of the defendant’s guilt.   

Divorce Day.  New Year’s Day and its preceding evening have been the subject of divorce litigation too. Before “no fault” divorce days, a contested divorce turned, in part, on a wife’s accusation of her husband’s infidelity after a New Year’s Eve party.

In Woodruff v. Woodruff, 107 N.W. 2d 714 (Minn. 1961), the wife appealed the divorce granted to the husband, which was based in part on her accusing him of being in love with another unidentified women. Agreeing with the trial court, the Supreme Court held that the husband was entitled to divorce on grounds of “cruel and inhuman” treatment because of the wife’s “contemptuous attitude” toward her husband, “repeated accusations of infidelity” on New Year’s Eve and a “constant course” of belittling and criticism.

The two days of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day constituted a single holiday for purposes of child visitation in Holmgren v. Holmgren, 1993 WL 140892 (Minn. App. 1993) (unpublished).  A marital termination agreement between the parties providing for alternate visitation on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day prompted a dispute when they were to rotate. The Court of Appeals resolved the matter be declaring that each spouse would have visitation for “one entire New Year’s holiday,” comprised of December 31st through January 1st every other year.

New Year’s Eve and the following day comprise the end of one year and the beginning of another.  As these cases reflect, they also have been the start of a variety of litigation that seems never-ending in Minnesota.

Happy New Year!