MANKATO — A judge has ruled Jennifer Nibbe's conviction for murdering her husband at their home is enough to declare she is also liable for his death in a civil wrongful death lawsuit.
Blue Earth District Court Judge Kurt Johnson also granted a request by James Nibbe's family to pursue punitive damages when the lawsuit goes to trial.
The trial had been scheduled to start next month but has been postponed, and a new trial date hasn't been set, said Scott Kelly, the attorney representing James Nibbe's family.
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in March, about eight months after Jennifer Nibbe was sentenced to 25 years in prison for shooting James Nibbe while he slept in their bed. She murdered her husband in their house south of Lake Crystal on Aug. 31, 2010. Jennifer Nibbe wasn't arrested until several days after the shooting because she told investigators her husband had been killed by an intruder who also assaulted her.
The lawsuit was filed by James Nibbe's sister, Leslie Johnson, who has been named trustee for her family. Judge Johnson's order said Leslie Johnson had to prove Jennifer Nibbe engaged in a wrongful act that resulted in her husband's death to show she was liable. That requirement was met when Jennifer Nibbe, in a plea agreement that allowed her to avoid the possibility of a life sentence, admitted to shooting her husband in the head with a shotgun, the judge said.
"Here, the evidence is overwhelming, and not in dispute for the purposes of the partial summary judgement motion, as to the issue of (Jennifer Nibbe's) liability," Judge Johnson said in the order.
A jury will still be required to decide what damages the family should receive for the loss of James Nibbe. The jury also will have to decide if the family is entitled to punitive damages and, if so, what the damage amount should be, Kelly said. Punitive damages are used as a financial punishment for defendants who show a "deliberate disregard for the rights or safety of others."
The evidence from the criminal case shows Jennifer Nibbe met that requirement because she intentionally murdered her husband, the judge said.
Jennifer Nibbe has filed her own responses to the lawsuit, which do not follow Minnesota's Rules of Civil Procedure, the judge said. He has told her family that she needs to find a way to participate in the lawsuit, preferably with the help of an attorney, even though she is in prison.
If the Nibbe family is granted civil or punitive damages, the money will be used for a college scholarship fund that has been started in James Nibbe's name, Kelly said.
"It's moving along," he said. "We want to get it to trial and have the matter decided."