Wednesday, February 23, 2005

More Church Liability: $17M for Van Accident

The Milwaukee Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church is liable for a $17 million verdict over a car accident caused by a church volunteer. The decision is noteworthy from a legal standpoint because the volunteer was actually driving on behalf of a parachurch organization (Legion of Mary) that had a chapter in the parish. (The Archdiocese is also facing unrelated charges of cover-ups for child molestation by the clergy).

The church member had been a volunteer driver for the Legion of Mary (mostly helping transport the elderly to services) for about 40 years before this accident. From the article: "That day, she was delivering a statue of the Virgin Mary to a parishioner when she ran a red light and crashed into the car of semiretired barber Hjalmer Heikkinen. The man's car slid across the pavement and into a utility pole, and he has been paralyzed ever since, dependent on his family's care. His right leg later had to be amputated above the knee because of an infection, and his barbershop - where he had been trimming hair - closed."

How the jury derived the amount of the verdict: "The jury awarded Heikkinen $10 million for his pain, suffering and disability since the accident, another $5 million for future agonies and $500,000 more to compensate his wife of 61 years for her losses because of the wreck. He was awarded $558,366 for his medical bills so far, according to a total set by Circuit Judge Michael D. Guolee, and the jury awarded Heikkinen $750,000 more for future medical expenses."

For readers who find the $17 million verdict excessive, please note that the victim offered to settle for $3 million last Septemeber, but the church refused. I find the liability for an affiliated parachurch group's activities more significant than the size of the verdict. As a spokesperson for the Archdiocese said, the volunteer "was not performing duties for Christ King Parish nor for the archdiocese when this terrible accident happened."