Phanthavong family settles suit against Sensers

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2012 - 11:05 PM

Their attorney said they settled before Amy Senser's criminal trial but didn't announce it because they didn't want to influence the trial's jury.

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The parents of Anousone Phanthavong, including his father Phoxay, left, and mother, Keo, center, and niece Souksavahn, right, leave the Hennepin County Government Center after the verdict.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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The day after a jury convicted Amy Senser of criminal vehicular homicide, the law firm representing Anousone Phanthavong's family announced that it had accepted an offer to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit the family had filed against her.

"No financial settlement will ever replace what the family has lost," the Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben law firm said in a news release Friday. "They will forever be without his kindness, generosity and companionship."

Minneapolis attorney Jim Schwebel, who filed the suit last fall, said his clients accepted an amount upon which he and an attorney for the Sensers' auto liability policy agreed.

He said the settlement was reached just before Amy Senser went on trial but was not immediately announced "because we did not want in any way to contaminate the jury in the criminal case. We didn't know what they might read into that."

Schwebel said the Phanthavongs did not want to disclose the amount because they are "private people," but he acknowledged it "certainly" was more than the $50,000 the family was required by court rules to put in its lawsuit when they filed it in September.

Several Twin Cities attorneys who specialize in wrongful death and injury cases said it would not be uncommon for such a settlement to be six or even seven figures, depending on the limit of the Sensers' liability coverage and whether their insurance company's attorneys believed a jury would place a high value on Phanthavong's life.

One measure of that worth, attorneys say, is whether the dead person lived with and supported a spouse and children. Phanthavong, 38, was single and childless, but Schwebel said his death was an "enormous" loss to his parents and siblings.

"This family was so reliant on Anousone," he said. "He was the oldest son. He looked after his sisters and brother. He cared for his immigrant parents. He supported them financially and brought them meals a couple of times a week from the restaurant where he worked. When he was killed, a permanent hole was torn in the fabric of his family."

The family sued the Sensers on Sept. 6, days after Amy Senser admitted driving the car that struck Phanthavong, but before criminal charges were filed against her.

The suit alleged that she "demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the rights and safety of others." It named former Minnesota Vikings star Joe Senser as a defendant, saying that as the vehicle's registered owner, he was liable for his wife's negligence.

"We hired an accident reconstruction expert," Schwebel said Friday. "We developed overwhelming evidence of her criminal negligence." He said it was clear that she failed to see Phanthavong's car with its flashers on, failed to see him putting gas in it, though he would have been clearly visible in her headlights, and failed to go a reasonable speed for an exit ramp.

"She was oblivious to her driving," Schwebel said. "I'm sure we proved that to the satisfaction of the Sensers' insurance carrier." He also noted that the standard of proof in a civil case -- a "preponderance of the evidence" -- is lower than in a criminal case, where the standard is proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Schwebel said attorneys and insurance companies in civil cases arrive at settlement amounts by making educated predictions of what a jury would do if they go to trial.

"We look back at what juries have done in similar circumstances," he said. "Typically there's a range where [jury awards] fall. Both the insurance company and we are aware of that range. This settlement fell within a reasonable range of what a jury would do with these facts."

Asked what the settlement will mean for the Phanthavongs, Schwebel said: "They're not going to change their lives. These are humble people. There will be more economic security, but I would never suggest they're made whole."

Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504

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