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Settlement made in 2001 death of UMD freshman

The family of a 19-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth student who became intoxicated and died from hypothermia when he fell into Chester Creek seven years ago has settled its civil lawsuit against the victim's UMD Rugby Club teammates who fu...

The family of a 19-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth student who became intoxicated and died from hypothermia when he fell into Chester Creek seven years ago has settled its civil lawsuit against the victim's UMD Rugby Club teammates who furnished him the alcohol at a party.

Duluth lawyer Gerald J. Brown, who represented the family of Ken Christiansen, said the survivors will receive a $150,000 settlement from the three defendants in the lawsuit.

"The Christiansen family members are relieved not to have to relive the tragedy of their son and brother's death, and the settlement made that possible,'' Brown said on Thursday.

A final pretrial hearing had been scheduled for today, and a four-day jury trial had been scheduled to start May 6.

Christiansen, a UMD freshman, died on April 13, 2001. His body was found three days after the party in the creek below steep banks, which were at the foot of an alley where he was last seen walking home from the party.

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Police suspect he tried to cross the swollen creek in the dark. His death was ruled to be accidental. His face had been marked with a black permanent marker, part of an initiation ritual that rugby team members participated in at the party.

The victim drank beer for up to 5½ hours at the party, and his body had a blood-alcohol content of more than twice the limit to drive.

The defendants in the civil lawsuit -- Wesley W. Omer, Kevin J. McGuigan and Brian G. Warden -- were all of legal drinking age at the time of the incident and teammates of Christiansen. McGuigan was president of the club rugby team, Warden was treasurer and Omer was captain. All three men pleaded guilty in 2001 to the gross misdemeanor crime of furnishing alcohol to a minor.

According to court documents, Omer, McGuigan, Warden and a fourth student, who wasn't involved in the incident, rented the house at 430 N. 12th Ave. E. where the party and the drinking took place. Warden paid for two kegs of beer with a check written on the Duluth Rugby Club account.

The victim's father, Mark A. Christiansen, and the victim's sisters, Lisa Harma and Sherry Christiansen, filed the wrongful death lawsuit in November of 2005. The victim's mother, Carol, 53, died of breast cancer about four months before her son.

Ken Christiansen was a 2000 Duluth Central High School graduate and attended UMD to study biomedical engineering.

As a result of his death, UMD instituted tougher penalties for students caught drinking off campus, and the school temporarily suspended activities for the 45-member men's and women's rugby teams.

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents had been named as defendants in the suit, but 6th Judicial District Judge Mark Munger granted the university's motion to dismiss the case against the school. Munger ruled that "universities can certainly institute policies creating consequences to discourage illegal off-campus activities, but that does not impose a duty to exercise control over all students' off-campus activities, as universities are not the insurers of students' safety,'' he wrote in his order to dismiss.

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Omer filed a motion that he also be dismissed from the case on the grounds that there was a three-year limitation to bring a wrongful death action. Munger ruled that the wrongful death claim was governed by a six-year limitation. Omer appealed that decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which affirmed Munger's decision in a published opinion. Published opinions are issued in only the most important and complex cases. Such opinions are considered and used by courts faced with similar issues in the future, and they are published in books found in most law libraries.

Munger issued an order on April 3 ruling that Ken Christiansen's conduct was not to be considered by a jury to compare his fault to those who provided him beer at the rugby club social party. Brown considered that decision to be a "pivotal and correct decision'' by the court and led to the settlement of the case, he said.

"Another [pretrial] ruling by Judge Munger that I believe had a bearing on the decision of the defendants to settle was his ruling that there was civil liability under the statutes regardless of whether those who furnished the alcoholic beverages knew the drinker was underage,'' Brown said. "Ignorance of the age therefore is not a defense. It's almost a situation of absolute liability.''

St. Paul lawyer Gregory Holly, who represented McGuigan and Warden in the case, declined comment on Thursday. Attorney J.D. Feriancek of Duluth, who represented Omer, also declined comment but added, "My client is pleased with the settlement and more than happy to put it behind him."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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