Milwaukee Archdiocese to Keep Fighting Damage Award of $16.8 Million

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee plans to keep fighting a $16.8 million damage award, upheld on appeal, for an 85-year-old man who was severely injured when his car was hit by a vehicle driven by a church group volunteer.

The state appeals court ruled against the archdiocese, but its attorney Frank Steeves said the Wisconsin Supreme Court will be asked to review the decision.

Last year a jury in Milwaukee County Circuit Court ruled in favor of Hjalmer Heikkinen of West Allis, whose car collided on March 25, 2002, with a vehicle driven by Margaret Morse, a woman running an errand for the Legion of Mary at Christ King parish in Wauwatosa.

The crash left Heikkinen paralyzed from the neck down.

The church and its insurer, the Catholic Mutual Relief Society of America, appealed but the District 1 Court of Appeals upheld the verdict and judgment.

The court’s ruling likely won’t have much impact on other churches or organizations that rely on volunteers because the issue revolved around specific language in the Catholic Mutual insurance policy, said Terry Johnson, Morse’s attorney.

It is unusual for an insurance policy to grant coverage to volunteers working on behalf of the organization and therefore the ruling likely won’t have a very broad impact, Johnson said.

“The sky isn’t falling,” he said. “It’s a unique policy; it’s a unique situation.”

Steeves said he disagreed with that interpretation of the ruling, which he said “could have a chilling effect on the way that nonprofits and religious institutions share resources and facilities.”

The court ruled Morse was covered under the archdiocese’s plan and Morse was pleased, Johnson said.

Heikkinen’s attorney, Kevin Kukor, said his client was relieved with the decision.

Court records show Morse collided with Heikkinen’s car while Morse was delivering a statue of the Virgin Mary to another parishioner while serving as a legion volunteer.

Heikkinen’s attorney had argued that the Legion of Mary group had links to the archdiocese, given that it meets at the church and helps ailing parishioners. But the archdiocese said the group operated independently of the parish.

The appeals court determined that it was reasonable for the jury to determine that Morse’s volunteer efforts were done on behalf of the archdiocese, saying the group “clearly functions to help the priest and is dependent upon Christ King’s facilities.”

The court also noted that the statue delivery program is one of the group’s major activities and it used the church’s tax identification number to purchase them, along with other items. The statues also had been blessed by a priest, the court said.

The court upheld the awarding to Heikkinen of $15 million for pain and suffering, $1.3 million for medical expenses and $500,000 to his wife. The couple has not received that money as the appeal is pending.

The ruling comes only days after the archdiocese on Friday announced it would sell off properties and liquidate assets to pay its share of a nearly $17 million settlement of sexual abuse claims involving 10 victims in California and two priests.