The Blake School could be held liable in the death of a man from Fairmont, Minn., who was killed when a 16-year-old student crashed his car on the way to a cross-country meet.
The Minnesota Supreme Court, in a decision filed Wednesday, said a lawsuit by the man’s family against the private school should go to trial, reversing a lower court’s decision to dismiss it.
Seven years ago, the student was driving teammates and a teen volunteer coach to Sioux Falls, S.D., when the teen crossed over the centerline on Hwy. 15 near Watonwan County in southern Minnesota and hit a car driven by 65-year-old Gary Fenrich. He was killed and his wife, JeanAnn Fenrich, was severely injured.
In the 4-2 ruling, Justice David Lillehaug wrote that, while the cross-country meet was outside the normal league season, the head coach had encouraged his team to attend it and the assistant coach paid the bulk of the registration fee, so the coaches were acting on behalf of the school.
Lillehaug also noted the teen had had his license for less than six month and was driving a long distance with no adult supervision.
“A reasonable factfinder could conclude that, under these circumstances, it was foreseeable that a teenage driver on a long trip, in a car with three other teenagers, could get distracted and collide with another driver,” Lillehaug wrote.
Justice G. Barry Anderson disagreed, writing in his dissent that “the court has significantly expanded the potential liability of schools.”
“Minnesota schools, both private and public, now risk liability to members of the general public whenever students drive themselves to or from a school activity, even when the school has no notice of any history of negligent or reckless driving,” Anderson wrote in the dissent, which was joined by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.
He added that Minnesota schools will now likely “ratchet back on school activities and relationships in order to limit financial exposure.”
Fenrich’s family couldn’t be reached for comment. In a prepared statement, Blake said the school is committed to safety and privacy, and “we will refrain from comment on pending litigation.”
Blake is one of the largest private schools in Minnesota, with about 1,400 students. The 118-year-old school has campuses in Hopkins, Wayzata and Minneapolis and has many notable alumni.
In November 2011, several runners on the Blake cross-country team decided to participate in an offseason meet in Sioux Falls and drove in a two-car caravan from Chanhassen to South Dakota, according to court documents. The assistant coach drove one car while the teen drove another. A volunteer coach, who was a teenager and recent Blake graduate, sat in the back seat of the teen’s car while they traveled through southern Minnesota on the two-lane highway.
The volunteer coach later told police that the driver, who wasn’t named, was “probably distracted by his own phone” when he swerved into oncoming traffic, hitting Fenrich. Afterward, the assistant coach said to police: “What are we doing with a 16-year-old driving this distance?”
According to court documents, a 2014 settlement was reached between JeanAnn Fenrich and the teen driver, releasing him and his family from all claims. But she sued Blake in Watonwan County District Court, claiming the school was negligent in its supervision.
The court dismissed her claims, saying that while the school owed a “duty of care” to its students, it didn’t for the general public. She appealed the case to the state Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court decision, saying the crash wasn’t foreseeable.
The state Supreme Court, however, reversed the dismissal and Lillehaug wrote the “foreseeability is at least a close call … and the case should have been tried.”