The survivors of a man fatally run over while out for a walk in St. Paul has sued the driver, a prominent attorney who was not charged after arguing that his brain cancer played a role in the collision.
Peter Berge, 62, of St. Paul, was negligent when he struck 35-year-old Scott Spoo in a Mississippi River Boulevard crosswalk on Feb. 22, 2017, the man’s survivors alleged in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed Monday in Ramsey County District Court.
Police had suspected that Berge was under the influence of an illicit substance and on his cellphone at the time, but Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman concluded otherwise and declined to file felony charges.
Berge was found to have glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer when he was hospitalized shortly after the late-afternoon crash. A spokesman for Freeman said that Berge’s cancer “would have made it very difficult” to win a felony conviction.
Freeman’s office handled the case to allow the office of Ramsey County John Choi to avoid a conflict of interest because Berge was a political supporter of Choi.
The case then was turned over to City Attorney Lyndsey Olson for consideration of misdemeanor or gross-misdemeanor charges. In April 2018, Olson also declined to charge Berge with a crime, saying she felt there was not enough proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Spoo family’s attorney, Jay Urban, said the lack of charges has “nothing to do with our case at all. ... The standards are completely different. He didn’t intend to mow him down,” but did act with “a high degree of recklessness or gross negligence.”
Urban said Berge was served at home with the lawsuit on Friday, 20 months since his cancer was diagnosed. The Spoo family attorney said he intends to have Berge deposed under oath about the events surrounding the crash.
Messages were left with Berge and his attorney seeking a response to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, which has a lower burden of proof than required for a criminal conviction, focuses on two areas in its effort to show that Berge was negligent: his state of health had no bearing on his ability to drive, and he was weaving all over the road while looking down at his cellphone in the moments before his SUV struck Spoo.
Berge was “active and able-bodied” in the days and weeks before the crash, the suit read. It points out that he went on a weeklong bicycle trip to California earlier that month, attended a play four days before the crash and traveled to Las Vegas three days prior for a concert.
Urban added that responding St. Paul police officers were wearing body cameras, he was viewed the footage and it shows Berge “fully capable and competent. ... He wasn’t falling down. He wasn’t having seizures, none of that.”
As for Berge’s behavior behind the wheel on the day he hit Spoo, the suit cited witnesses who saw him “frequently” cross the centerline and “weaving back and forth ... and into oncoming traffic,” three times with all four wheels over the centerline.
During this time, the suit continued, Berge “was looking down at a cellphone or other similar device in his hand held between the steering wheel and his torso while driving.”
The suit also points out that Berge had collided with a car minutes earlier that was on 6th Street in Minneapolis and about to enter eastbound Interstate 94. The two drivers pulled over to a safe location and exchanged insurance information, and then Berge went on to St. Paul.
‘Surged in speed’
As he neared Dayton Avenue, Berge “surged in speed” toward the crosswalk, where Spoo was walking, the court filing continued. “Spoo turned his head to see ... [Berge] driving towards him. ... He began to run to clear the intersection.”
But the avid runner was not quick enough, and Berg hit Spoo, who “flipped up into the air above [Berge’s] SUV and forward in a spiraling, cartwheel fashion, and landed 65 feet south of the area of impact.”
Berge was “expressionless with no concern for the person he hit,” the suit read. “[He] did not stop his vehicle until he was a significant distance from where Scott Spoo’s body landed.”
The suit seeks more than $50,000, but the Spoo family’s attorney indicated the amount being sought is in reality substantially more “because the loss is so great.”
At the time of the crash, Berge was the ethics chairman for the Hennepin County Bar Association. He also was web director for Minnesota Continuing Legal Education, a nonprofit established by the Minnesota State Bar Association that develops various educational services for lawyers. He left that job weeks before the crash.
Spoo, of Woodbury, was valedictorian for New Richmond (Wis.) High School’s Class of 2000. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before transferring to and graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He received his master’s from the University of Minnesota and worked for 3M in the Twin Cities for 11 years and as an engineer.
Along with being a runner, Spoo was a dedicated bicyclist who “worked to bring more awareness to bicycle safety for both bicyclists and motorists,” his online obituary read.