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Wegner v. Milwaukee Mut. Ins. Co

    Brief Fact Summary. The Court of Appeals of Minnesota affirmed a trial court’s granting of summary judgment to Milwaukee Mutual Insurance Company (Defendant) in Harriet G. Wenger’s (Plaintiff’s) action for damages caused to her house when city police flushed out a criminal suspect hiding in the house. The homeowner challenged the judgment.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. In situations where an innocent third party’s property is taken, damaged or destroyed by the police in the course of apprehending a suspect, it is for the municipality to compensate the innocent party for the resulting damages.

    Facts. On August 27, 1986, Minneapolis police were staking out an address in Northeast Minneapolis in the hopes of apprehending two suspected felons who were believed to be coming to that address to sell stolen narcotics. The suspects arrived at the address with the stolen narcotics. Before arrests could be made, however, the suspects spotted the police and fled in their car at a high rate of speed with the police in pursuit. Eventually, the suspects abandoned their vehicle, separated, and fled on foot. The police exchanged gunfire with one suspect as he fled. This suspect later entered Plaintiff’s house and hid in the front closet. Plaintiff’s granddaughter, who was living at the house, and her fiance then fled the premises and notified the police.
    A SWAT Team was dispatched, and they fired the tear gas to every level of the house, breaking virtually every window in the process. Additionally, the police cast three concussion grenades into the house to confuse the suspect. The police then entered the home and apprehended the suspect. The tear gas and flash-bang grenades caused extensive damage to Plaintiff’s house, and Plaintiff commenced an action against both the City of Minneapolis and Milwaukee Mutual to recover damages. The City both brought motions for summary judgment on all claims. The district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the City on the “taking” issue, holding that “Eminent domain is not intended as a limitation on [the] police power.”
    Issue. At issue was whether the exercise of the city’s admittedly legitimate police power resulted in a “taking”, and thus required compensation on the part of the city.

    Held. When a homeowner’s property is taken (in the legal sense), damaged or destroyed by the police in the course of apprehending a suspect, the municipality is required to compensate the innocent party for the resulting damages. Thus, the judgments of the lower courts were reversed and the cause remanded for trial on the issue of damages.

    Discussion. The Minnesota State Constitution essentially mirrors the federal rule: “[p]rivate property shall not be taken, destroyed or damaged for public use without just compensation, first paid or secured. This provision imposes a condition on the exercise of the state’s inherent supremacy over private property rights. This type of constitutional
    Wegner v. Milwaukee Mut. Ins. Co.
    inhibition is designed to bar the government from forcing some people alone to bear public burdens which, in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole.” Further, as the court pointed out, “The policy considerations in this case center around the basic notions of fairness and justice. At its most basic level, the issue is whether it is fair to allocate the entire risk of loss to an innocent homeowner for the good of the public.” Both federal and state law is simple and explicit on this point: once it has been determined that a “taking” has occurred, compensation is required by operation of law.


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