The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

July 13, 2013

New Ulm settles accident case for $570,000

NEW ULM — When a New Ulm city police squad car — traveling at least 70 mph with no lights or siren on a 30 mph street — crashed into a passenger vehicle containing an elderly New Ulm woman and her son in 2011, both Myra Meyer and Brian Wichmann were killed but no criminal charges were filed against Officer Mathew Rasmussen.

Two years later, however, the insurer for the officer and the City of New Ulm has paid $570,000 to the survivors of Meyer, 82, and Wichmann, 60, to settle a lawsuit stemming from the crash. Both the city and Rasmussen were defendants in the lawsuit on behalf of Meyer's three surviving children, who also were Wichmann's siblings.

"Defendant Rasmussen caused the crash that killed Myra Ann Meyer by negligently operating defendant city's squad car at excessive and reckless speeds," the lawsuit contended. "Defendant Rasmussen negligently caused the crash when he failed to activate his emergency lights and sirens to alert the public that he was speeding, and when he negligently failed to yield, maintain a proper lookout, and maintain control over his vehicle."

At the time of the settlement, finalized in late May, a lawyer representing the city and Rasmussen was laying the groundwork for a defense based on the assertion that the accident was largely or completely Meyer's fault, and the settlement includes no admission of wrong-doing.

"Defendants deny they were guilty of any carelessness or negligence which caused the death of Brian Bruce Wichmann," attorney Pierre Regnier wrote. "... (Any liability by Rasmussen and the city) would only be secondary, passive, indirect or vicarious, whereas the decedent Myra Ann Meyer was guilty of carelessness, negligence and other unlawful conduct."

State Farm Insurance, Meyer's insurer, agreed to pay $100,000 as part of the mediated settlement — bringing the total settlement to $670,000.

Attorney Peter Riley, who handled a portion of the family's lawsuit, said Meyer's surviving children don't believe their mother was in any way at fault, and the $100,000 payment from State Farm resulted from the city's allegation that Meyer was partially liable. Riley said the $570,000 payment on behalf of the city and Rasmussen speaks for itself.

"The plain fact of the matter is they are not making this payment other than they admit (they're at fault)," Riley said.

New Ulm Police Chief Myron Wieland had little comment about the case, but he didn't agree that the settlement itself is an admission that Rasmussen — who had been with the department about eight months at the time of the July 8, 2011, crash — had performed badly that day.

"Once the lawsuit was struck up, the League of Minnesota Insurance Trust took over," said Wieland, adding that he and City Manager Brian Gramentz were given updates by the insurer's attorney but had little other input.

Riley said the investigation by his firm showed that Rasmussen has been disciplined by the city, but Wieland declined to comment on any disciplinary action related to the crash. City officials did not respond Friday afternoon to requests from The Free Press for details on any discipline meted against Rasmussen, information that is public under state law.

Rasmussen remains listed as a patrol officer on the New Ulm Police Department website. Emails sent to him offering the opportunity to comment on the crash were not returned Friday or Saturday.

A lengthy crash investigation by the Minnesota State Patrol concluded that Rasmussen, attempting to catch up with a speeder he estimated to be traveling 44 mph, was driving between 70 and 72 mph with the accelerator to the floor and his eyes on the squad's radar device less than a second before slamming into the left-turning Mercury Sable driven by Meyer.

Along with interviewing Rasmussen and several witnesses, Patrol investigators retrieved data from the Ford squad car's powertrain control module and airbag control module and video from the car's on-board camera. (See the video at www.mankatofreepress.com).

The alleged speeder was already far down Garden Street when Rasmussen began his pursuit because he had to wait for traffic while turning his squad around. The video shows that Rasmussen was further delayed when a minivan was slow to pull to the side of the two-lane street. He activated his emergency lights at some point during the pursuit but then turned them off, according to witnesses.

After clearing the minivan, Rasmussen accelerated rapidly and both the throttle and the accelerator were at 100 percent in the 10 seconds before the crash, according to the Patrol investigator. The same investigator concluded that Rasmussen, who said he had been looking down at his radar reading, was still accelerating one second before the crash and didn't recognize that Meyer's turning vehicle was a danger until eight-tenths of one second before the collision.

At that point, his foot came off the accelerator. The brake was first depressed four-tenths of a second before the crash.

Rasmussen told investigators he left the emergency lights on throughout the pursuit — that they went off only after power was disrupted by the collision.

The squad video camera, which shows 29 seconds of footage before the collision, continued to operate after the crash, as did the car's radio. The video shows no indication that the emergency lights were on, and several witnesses along Garden Street told crash investigators the emergency lights were not activated.

The video shows Meyer's car making the turn and a violent impact immediately following, but the quality of the video and the extremely brief period that the Mercury is in the camera's view makes it impossible to tell if the left-turn signal was activated.

Riley said he has no doubt a jury would have determined that the officer was at fault rather than accepting the city's contention that Meyer was to blame.

"They contended that she should have seen the police car flying at her at 70 mph with no lights or siren on," Riley said.

Preliminary documents filed by Regnier, the attorney representing the city and Rasmussen, also indicated they would suggest that Meyer's death resulted from causes other than the crash. While Wichmann was dead at the scene, the elderly Meyer didn't die until July 18 after 10 days of hospitalization at the Hennepin County Medical Center.

"Defendants admit that the injuries sustained by Myra Ann Meyer in the crash contributed to her death," Regnier wrote in an answer to the lawsuits, "but deny that said crash was the primary cause of death."  

The city's decision to settle the case for $570,000, though, plainly indicates that they accept fault for the crash, according to Riley, who said that state law requires emergency lights to be used by police when they are exceeding the speed limit.

"It's not anywhere near within protocol to drive the way he did — 70 mph on a residential street without your lights on," said Riley, a partner with the Minneapolis-based Schwebel, Goetz and Sieben law firm.

Drivers, like Meyer, have a right under the law to assume that other drivers are operating their vehicles in a lawful manner, he said. Meyer would have reasonably judged that the squad car was well beyond the distance where an on-coming vehicle would pose any danger to her planned left turn into the Garden Terrace apartments, he said.

"That (squad) car is traveling at over 100 feet per second. That's a football field every three seconds," Riley said. "... To look that far down the road (before making a left turn) would not make sense."

Gail Miller, 64, of Mankato, and Derek Wichmann, 50, of New Ulm, didn't return calls from The Free Press seeking comment about the settlement or the crash that ended the lives of their mother and brother. But Dana Wichmann, 59, of Waseca has strong opinions about the case and has started a website that he hopes will lead to further investigation of how the crash was handled by authorities.

"I don't believe justice has been served," Dana Wichmann said. "I think it's some cowboy cop and they're trying to cover it up. ... It's nice to have money, but I'd rather have truth and justice."

Wichmann — who doesn't hide his animosity toward New Ulm, where he grew up — said his brother and sister want the case to be concluded and consider some of his views extreme. But he said he still wants accountability from city officials, who he believes put the interests of an employee over the interests of his mother and his brother, who was developmentally disabled and an employee at MRCI in Mankato.

"They tried to blame my mom, 'It's an 82-year-old woman and a retarded guy, why ruin the career of an officer?'" Wichmann said. "Why? Because he was wrong."

The Patrol investigation file was forwarded for potential criminal charges against Rasmussen in the fall of 2011, but none were ever filed. The Brown County Attorney's Office referred the case to Redwood County Attorney Steve Collins to avoid a conflict of interest because New Ulm police and county prosecutors have a close working relationship.

Collins, rather than making a decision himself on whether Rasmussen's actions were criminal, chose in November 2011 to convene a grand jury, which chose not to indict Rasmussen on any charges. The use of a grand jury — required under Minnesota law for first-degree murder cases — is a relatively uncommon and comparatively expensive way to determine whether charges should be filed in a traffic accident.

The process is also closed to the public, and no information is available about the evidence presented to the 24 members of the the grand jury.

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