Court Upholds Verdict in Milwaukee Archdiocese Accident

September 7, 2006

A $16.8 million verdict against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a church insurance fund for an 85-year-old man who was severely injured in a car crash was not excessive, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.

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.

Heikkinen was paralyzed from the neck down in the crash.

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

The court’s decision likely won’t have much if any 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.”

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

Kathleen Hohl, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, had no immediate comment on the ruling. Frank Steeves, the insurance company’s attorney, did not immediately return messages Wednesday seeking comment.

Heikkinen’s attorney, Kevin Kukor, was not in the office Wednesday morning and did not immediately return a message.

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 court’s ruling comes 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.

Topics Legislation Church

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