Calling police shootings accidental doesn’t equal an escape from liability, court records show

Ryan Raiche
Updated: April 16, 2021 11:21 PM
Created: April 16, 2021 06:04 PM

If the former Brooklyn Center police officer did, in fact, intend to pull out her taser instead of her handgun when she shot and killed Daunte Wright Sunday, it would amount to a tragic accident.

But calling it a mistake or accident does not magically release an officer — or their department — from liability, according to a federal judge in Minnesota who ruled on a similar shooting a decade ago. 

“The law's not going to say, ‘Oh, it was simply a mistake, no liability whatsoever,’” said David Schultz, a law professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. 

Kim Potter is already facing criminal charges for second-degree manslaughter. Her former department could face significant civil liability, based on a review of several other accidental police shootings in Minnesota that resulted in hefty legal settlements. 

In 2009, Stearns County tried to skirt liability after a sheriff’s deputy shot a man in the back at point-blank range during a drug bust in a McDonald’s parking lot.

John Sorensen still has the scars from where the bullet “entered the back near the spine” and shattered his shoulder blade.

A federal judge refused to throw out Sorensen’s lawsuit because “it would allow officers to escape liability simply by claiming that unreasonable conduct was an accident.”

Attorney Andy Noel, who specializes in excessive force cases, represented Sorensen in civil court.

“What would stop an officer from claiming that a shooting was an accident if that was enough to get the officer off the hook on civil liability?” said Noel, who settled the case for about $350,000.

Mistaking a handgun for a Taser? It happened before in Minnesota

In one case similar to the Brooklyn Center shooting, a police officer in Rochester in 2002 said he confused his taser for his handgun when he shot a man who appeared to be having a mental health crisis.

The shooting victim survived, and the officer was never charged. But the city was still on the hook in civil court and settled the matter for about $900,000.

In another shooting in 2015 in Eden Prairie, an officer also said he accidentally fired his service weapon.

The officer’s dash-cam video shows that he shot Matthew Hovland-Knase in the arm the moment he stepped foot out of his squad, following a high-speed chase.

That case was also settled for around $350,000.

“You never want to place your finger inside that trigger guard, unless you're intending to shoot the weapon,” Noel said.

The court records show even if an officer doesn’t intend to shoot someone, they can be held liable by simply pulling out their gun.

In Potter’s case, legal experts believe her case will come down to whether it passes the “reasonable officer” test — meaning whether a “reasonable officer” would make the same mistake.

“We generally in law, do not let people off for making mistakes and for making accidents,” Schultz said.

Potter now faces a single charge of second-degree manslaughter.

On the civil side, the family of Daunte Wright has retained attorney Benjamin Crump, who also represented the family of George Floyd. They recently reached a multi-million dollar lawsuit with the city of Minneapolis. 


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