In suing Sensers, family of the victim asks, 'Why?'

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2011 - 10:10 AM

The lawsuit alleges that Amy Senser "demonstrated a deliberate disregard" for the safety of others.

The family of a man struck and killed by Joe and Amy Senser's Mercedes SUV on a Minneapolis freeway ramp filed a lawsuit Tuesday in hopes of prying loose more information about how and why the crash happened and, most of all, why Amy Senser left the scene.

The wrongful death suit alleges that Amy Senser "demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the rights and safety of others" when she allegedly struck and killed Anousone Phanthavong, 38, on an Interstate 94 ramp at the Riverside Avenue exit. Phanthavong, head cook at a nearby restaurant, had just left work and was putting gas in his vehicle when he was struck.

"The hospital is down the street, one block," said Vilayphone Phanthavong, the victim's sister, describing the exit ramp's proximity to University of Minnesota Medical Center. "She could have called the hospital. What do these people have to hide?"

Senser is married to former Vikings star Joe Senser, who is the registered owner of the vehicle that struck Anousone Phanthavong.

The lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court, asks for at least $50,000 for funeral and burial expenses, loss of support and damages. The lawsuit alleges that Joe Senser, as the registered owner of the vehicle, is liable for his wife's negligence.

The Sensers' attorney, Eric Nelson, said Tuesday he and the Sensers were anticipating the suit and have been in contact with the Phanthavongs' attorney, Jim Schwebel, since before the Sensers' involvement became public. He said the Phanthavongs wouldn't have the information necessary to sue if not for the Sensers' coming forward with the vehicle.

"I believe families of lesser moral and ethical character would have taken great lengths to conceal that car," Nelson said.

A key question is whether Amy Senser realized at the time that the vehicle had struck Phanthavong, whose car was parked on the right side of the ramp, its gas tank positioned on the left side.

Nelson, in an interview, hinted Tuesday that she may not have known she struck Phanthavong. Schwebel said the damage to the vehicle and the injuries that killed Phanthavong argue persuasively that she did.

"This was a violent impact, his body was airborne, it took off the left rearview mirror [of his car], he was carried quite a distance and his body was shattered," Schwebel said. "This is not the kind of thing that happens without you knowing that you've been in an accident."

Joe Senser, 55, a former Vikings tight end and co-owner of Joe Senser's Sports Theater restaurants, is on leave from his WCCO Radio job providing color commentary for the University of St. Thomas football games. The Sensers have four daughters, two in their 20s and two in their early teens.

No charges have been filed against Amy Senser, who has not been arrested while the State Patrol continues to investigate the death. The suit gives Schwebel subpoena power to question the Sensers and others associated with the case.

'She should pay'

The Senser family informed the State Patrol the night after the accident that a Mercedes-Benz SUV belonging to Joe Senser had been involved. Their involvement wasn't made public until a search warrant was executed late last week. On Friday, Nelson revealed that Amy Senser was the driver.

Although Nelson advised the Sensers not to answer the State Patrol's questions, they've offered DNA samples and cellphone records, he said. He continued to refuse to discuss the circumstances of the crash or why Amy Senser continued driving.

"One of the things that ultimately someone would have to prove, in the context of a criminal and civil case, is that Ms. Senser knew she hit a person," Nelson said. "Whether you stop because you know you've killed that person or to render medical aid, you have to know you hit a person."

According to the State Patrol, Mercedes parts were found at the scene and there was blood on the hood of the vehicle. No one apparently saw the crash, Schwebel said.

The Phanthavongs said they were largely left in the dark after the crash. Kono Phanthavong, Anosoune's brother, said a state trooper called the family to let them know the car was found and simply said, "Get a lawyer."

"That's what's frustrating to us because we know everything from media," Vilayphone Phanthavong said.

The family is frustrated with the slow pace of the investigation and that Amy Senser remains free. Nelson emphasized that the Sensers are being treated no differently than anyone in similar circumstances.

"Poor people, I'd say, would be sitting in the jailhouse right now." said Vilayphone Phanthavong, flanked by family members at Schwebel's law office.

She stopped short of saying she wanted to see Amy Senser behind bars.

"I think she should pay for what she does," she said.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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