Hot Docs: Family of man sues ex-NFL player over car accident death

September 15, 2011

Joe CensorsAt around 11:00 p.m. on August 23, 2011, Anousone Phanthavong, the head chef at a local Thai restaurant, ran out of gas while he was driving his car on the interstate, and he pulled onto the shoulder of a nearby exit ramp.

As he was standing alongside of his car adding fuel to it, he was struck by a Mercedes SUV.

The SUV was driven by Amy Senser, the wife of Joseph Senser, former professional football player for the Minnesota Vikings, and part owner of local restaurant and sports bar chain “Joe Senser’s.”

According to the complaint, Joe Senser is the owner of the vehicle.

Because of being struck by the car, Phanthavong died.

The exact facts surrounding the accident are still uncertain, since the driver of the car immediately fled the scene after the accident.

In addition, according to state patrol investigators, the Sensor family hasn’t been very forthcoming on the facts.

While the family notified investigators that Amy was the driver of the vehicle at the time, that fact is still being confirmed, according to the state patrol.

Because of a wrongful death suit filed last week by the family of Phanthavong, the Sensor family will have to deal with another investigation into the incident.

Hot Doc: Phanthavong v. Senser

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

The complaint is, unsurprisingly, scarce on the facts, but nonetheless asserts that Amy Sensor’s negligence was the cause of Phanthavong’s death.

Although we don’t know for sure how negligent Amy Sensor was that night, or if she was negligent at all (though the reluctance of the family to cooperate with authorities by itself seems to suggest some level of fault), the civil discovery process will be able to provide some specificity on that night’s events.

Unfortunately for the Sensers, the lawsuit doesn’t only target Amy, but Joe as well.

How are the plaintiffs able to do this?

Through a provision of the “Safety Responsibility Act” that makes the owner of a vehicle involved in an accident vicariously liable.

Specifically, the provision reads as follows:

Whenever any motor vehicle shall be operated within this state, by any person other than the owner, with the consent of the owner, express or implied, the operator thereof shall in case of accident, be deemed the agent of the owner of such motor vehicle in the operation thereof.

Unlike the mostly fact-sensitive claim directed at Amy, this claim (which still hinges on the determination of Amy’s negligence) has an additional significant legal question.

That is, whether or not Amy is a “person other than the owner” under the statute.

According to the definitions, an owner is a person who holds the legal title of a vehicle.

A court may view this definition very narrowly, and if Amy’s name is not on the car’s title, Joe would be vicariously liable.

On the other hand, a court could easily construe Amy being married to the car’s legal titleholder as her effectively holding the car’s title with Joe.

Coupled with other similar statutes’ much broader definitions of “owner,” it may be a more difficult case to make than it initially seems, and that is just one of many factual and legal determinations to be made.

No matter how the facts or the law shake down, though, everyone can at least agree that Phanthavong’s death was a tragedy.