Minn. Appeals Court: Party Host Can be Sued for Student Death

June 14, 2007

The family of a drunken Duluth college student who fell into a creek and died after a rugby team party can sue the party’s host for damages, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday, June 12.

The ruling allows the father and sisters of Ken Christiansen to pursue a civil claim against Wesley Omer, one of three team members who supplied alcohol to Christiansen at the party near the University of Minnesota Duluth. All three hosts were of legal drinking age.

Christiansen, 19, had a blood alcohol level of 0.216 when he died of hypothermia after falling into Chester Creek in April 2001.

Four years later, his family sued under a Minnesota law that allows relatives and other injured parties to recover damages from adults responsible for the intoxication of a person under age 21.

Omer’s attorneys tried to get the case dismissed, citing a three-year limitation on wrongful death lawsuits. The district court rejected that argument, pointing to another law that set the limit for liability cases at six years. Omer asked the Appeals Court to weigh in.

A three-judge panel led by Judge Terri Stoneburner noted that the case wasn’t a wrongful death lawsuit and the under-21 intoxication law didn’t specify a period for suing. So, they ruled, the six-year limit prevails.

Omer and the two other party hosts pleaded guilty to supplying alcohol to Christiansen in 2001 and were ordered to do volunteer work and speak publicly about drug and alcohol abuse. The University of Minnesota Duluth suspended its rugby teams for eight months after the death.

Christiansen’s family named three other defendants in the intoxication lawsuit. A separate wrongful death claim they brought against the University of Minnesota was dismissed.

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