Joe and Amy Senser from KARE files
Amy Senser video freeze from file
Accident victim Anousone Phanthavong
Phanthavong family members speak to media
Tee shirt worn by Phanthavong family
MINNEAPOLIS -- The family of a Roseville man killed in a hit and run accident filed a wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday against Twin Cities restaurant owner Joe Senser and his wife Amy. The former Minnesota Viking is the legal owner of the SUV his wife was driving the night of the fatal accident.
Attorney Jim Schwebel filed the action in Hennepin County District Court Tuesday morning, and had summons served to the Sensers before addressing the media.
"The purpose of this lawsuit is to learn the truth," Schwebel told KARE Tuesday. "The Senser family won't say where she was coming from, if anybody was in the vehicle with her, if there was alcohol involved, or why she was taking the Riverside exit."
Anousone Phanthavong, a 38-year-old chef who immigrated to the U.S. from Laos, ran out of gas on the night of August 23rd on the I-94 ramp at Riverside Avenue in Minneapolis. He was standing next to his vehicle pouring in gasoline when he was sideswiped.
"We do know there was an awful lot of violence involved," Schwebel explained, "We do know that his body was thrown into the air, and that the rear view mirror in his own car was knocked off."
The following day the Senser family contacted authorities to alert them that their vehicle may have been involved in the accident. Minnesota State Patrol investigators searched the Mercedes SUV at the Senser's home in Edina and established it was likely the vehicle they were seeking.
But the family waited until September 2, ten days after the crash, to divulge that Amy Senser was the one driving the truck when it struck Phanthavong. The family's attorney, criminal defense lawyer Eric Nelson, sent a one-line fax to the State Patrol followed up with a one-page statement to the media.
"I just miss his smile," Phanthavong's sister Vilayphone told reporters Tuesday. "It's sad for my parents. He had been going to my parents' home twice a week, and my parents are very sad and it's very sad for our family."
Vilayphone was one of several members of the Phanthavong family who gathered in Schwebel's Minneapolis office Tuesday afternoon. She said relatives are frustrated that no arrests have been made in the case yet.
"I think rich people can get away. And poor people? They'd be sitting in a jailhouse right now, so starting a lawsuit might get them out a little bit."
Surviving brother Kono Phanthavong said the aftermath of his brother's death had challenged his notions of American justice.
"How does that work? You turn in the car, turn in yourself, and then you're denying it. You're saying 'prove it.' It's hard to see that," Phanthavong said.
Amy Senser's criminal attorney, Eric Nelson, said the Senser family continues to fully cooperate with the State Patrol. He said they had voluntarily turned over cell phone records, credit card records and DNA samples in the past several days.
"The Sensers are not receiving any preferred or preferential treatment," Nelson told KARE. "This investigation is being conducted much like any other criminal investigation."
Nelson declined to reveal any further information about the accident or the circumstances surrounding it. He said the delays are to be expected because the case is complicated, and prosecutors are generally cautious about taking someone to court unless they've got compelling evidence.
"In order to charge someone with felony vehicular homicide or leaving the scene of a fatal injury accident they've got to prove that the driver knew she hit a person or a vehicle," Nelson explained.
The lawsuit accuses Amy Senser of negligence in her operation of the vehicle and maintains that Joe Senser is liable for his wife's conduct as owner of the vehicle. Phanthavong's family is seeking in excess of $50,000 for his death and their subsequent loss of income.
The action will also enable Schwebel to issue subpoena's and to tape interviews with Sensers and potential witnesses.
"But if they do choose to invoke the 5th Amendment that fact will be made available to a Hennepin County jury in conjunction with the civil trial," Schwebel asserted. "That jury can draw their own conclusions and ask what being concealed."
Kono Phanthavong said they didn't contact Schwebel initially seeking money, but did so on the advice of investigators.
"We had a state trooper call our family and say, 'You guys should get a lawyer,' and that's about the only thing they said," Phanthavong recalled. "They got the car the next day, and they didn't give us any information about it except the advice to get a lawyer."
Coincidentally, Kono said knows Senser's daughter Brittani personally from her days as a singer in Minneapolis. She dated one of his friends.
"I'm not mad at her personally," he said. "I'm maybe just angry about this accident and how they didn't stop to help Anousone."
Kono and Vilayphone Phanthavong, who are a Buddhist, said they believe their fallen brother's soul is trapped between worlds awaiting some resolution.
"He's confused. He doesn't know what life he's in. He's waiting for the same answers."
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