Woodbury lawyers named 2011 'Attorneys of the Year'
Tucked inside a row of small businesses just off Woodbury Drive, the Harper & Peterson law firm doesn't draw much attention.
That's just the way the firm's two top lawyers like it.
"We've got a quiet presence in Woodbury," said Paul Peterson, who along with Bill Harper, is a founding partner of the firm.
However, their work last year on a major case made a lot of noise in Minnesota's law community. The firm was honored at a Feb. 23 ceremony, where it was named a recipient of the Attorneys of the Year award from the publication Minnesota Lawyer.
Woodbury resident Lori Barton, an associate attorney at Harper & Peterson, was also awarded for her work in the case.
The firm was honored for its work on a lawsuit that stretched out more than four years and drew an undisclosed out-of-court settlement from the security firm ADT.
Patrick Thornton, associate editor of Minnesota Lawyer, said awarding Harper & Peterson was "a no-brainer."
"Other firms might have taken a settlement earlier on," he said. "These guys, they wanted the truth to get out in this. They stuck with it."
The suit alleged ADT was liable for damages in the deaths of Teri Lee and Tim Hawkinson, the two people murdered in Lake Elmo after Steven Van Keuren broke into Lee's house and shot them to death.
Peterson, a Woodbury resident, said the award was recognition of vigorous client representation and a successful effort to clarify a particular piece of law.
"It's recognition that we took on a huge, multi-national corporation and all the resources it could throw at this little country firm in Woodbury," he said. "It honors the family and our clients."
The murders occurred in 2006 after Lee had severed ties with Van Keuren, her former boyfriend. According to court documents, Van Keuren assaulted Lee in her home after the breakup - an action that Harper called "an attempt on her life."
"(Van Keuren) promised to come back and kill her," Peterson said.
In response to the incident, Lee, along with her new boyfriend Hawkinson, bought a high-end ADT security system for her home. According to court records, Hawkinson - a Maplewood police officer who carried a gun while off duty and slept at the Lee home - indicated he wanted some kind of warning if Van Keuren broke in.
"All they needed was for the alarm to go off," said Harper, an Afton resident.
That warning apparently never came.
Van Keuren broke in through a ground-level sliding glass door, and then shot the couple while they lay in bed.
For Lee's children, the murders compounded an already tragic situation: their father had been killed in an auto wreck a few years earlier.
"These four kids lost a lot of their security," Peterson said.
Peterson and Harper argued in court that the ADT alarm didn't go off until too late. They claimed the alarm wasn't tripped until Lee's children fled the house out a door.
The attorneys argued that the company failed on multiple levels to protect Lee - from the installation of the equipment to the monitoring of the intrusion system. Peterson said they found "a lot of what we felt was ... disregard" in training and corporate policies.
ADT countered that the alarm likely did go off, Harper and Peterson said.
The legal team assembled a mountain of evidence they prepared to bring to trial, including some heavy-duty research.
The duo explained how they worked with more than a dozen focus groups that functioned as non-binding juries. They also hired a company that produced a 360-degree video presentation of the Lee house that was to be shown to a jury.
"That's what we'd tell (ADT lawyers)," Harper said. "You've got experts, but we've got facts."
The case was resolved out of court in October 2011, just as it was about to go to trial.
Enforcing the unenforceable
During legal proceedings, the Woodbury lawyers were able to get a piece of law clarified that they said also represented a pivotal point in the suit.
Peterson said ADT's contract called for a liability limitation that was capped at $500. If enforced by the courts, the limit meant ADT was only on the hook for a $500 settlement.
Judges regularly strike down challenges to those limits in cases of "ordinary negligence," Peterson explained. When intentional conduct is proven, those limits can be lifted by the courts, he said.
But he said the Lee case fell somewhere between "ordinary negligence" and intentional conduct, which required clarification from the courts.
"Did we need a higher degree of negligence?" Peterson said.
What the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals settled on was not to enforce the $500 limit if companies have knowledge of a danger and continue to act negligently, Peterson explained. He said the category was actually on the books, but had been absorbed into another part of the law, leaving the landscape "muddied," as the courts called it.
The Woodbury lawyers paved the way to "an exception of the enforcement," Peterson said. The decision also freed up the lawyers to pursue damages beyond the $500 ADT was offering.
Peterson said he hopes the decision will create an ongoing effect in other cases involving personal injury suits involving security companies.
"That's the kind of thing we hope was accomplished here," he said.
He and Harper said they might attempt to lobby Minnesota lawmakers to make that contract provision unenforceable in the state.
Security companies, Peterson said, "shouldn't be ones to hide behind security limitations."