More from MPR
St. Paul, Minn. — The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office says it could be weeks before it completes its investigation into whether anything illegal happened on two charter boats on Lake Minnetonka. Witnesses say 17 Vikings took part in night-time boat parties that quickly turned into orgies of drunkeness, lewd behavior and nudity. There were also reports that some players on the boats propositioned waitresses to perform sexual acts.
Attorney Judith Schermer says if that's true, the waitresses could file a civil lawsuit that they feared for their safety. Schermer, who has practiced employment law for 18 years, says the circumstances are always important in such lawsuits. Here, she says, it's easy to see how the physical presence of a 250-pound football player could elicit fear in a 100-pound waitress, and that a waitress might be more fearful knowing there's nowhere to run.
"The fact is that these women were on a boat and they couldn't escape, they couldn't get off the boat. And it sounds like there were a lot of people on the boat and the one thing we don't know is how many people were engaging in this behavior," Schermer says.
In general civil lawsuits are easier to prove than criminal cases. In a civil case a person must prove the facts are more likely to be true than not. In a criminal case a prosecutor must prove the facts beyond a reasonable doubt. The difference reflects what's at stake. In in civil cases individuals can lose their money; in criminal cases, they can lose their freedom.
Attorney Jim Kaster agrees with Schermer that the waitresses probably have the best chance to sue, given the information that's trickled out so far. He says it's possible the waitresses could not only sue for damages that compensate them for any harm, but also for punitive damages. Punitive damages punish wrongdoers and are supposed to deter them from committing the same acts again.
"Their financial independence, the salaries they draw, their physical stature, their positions of trust and responsibility -- all of those factors could possibly lead to a significant damage award," Kaster figures.
But what about the team? Is it liable for any damages? Attorney Jeff Anderson, nationally known for suing and winning cases against the Catholic Church, says based on early reports, the Vikings are probably not liable for their players' conduct on the boats.
"The liability against the team would arise only if it was a team-sponsored event, something put on by the Vikings as a team organization. In the absence of them sponsoring it, I don't see any liability on behalf of the organization," according to Anderson.
A Minnesota Viking is threatening to file a lawsuit of his own. Cornerback Fred Smoot allegedly planned the boat outings. He says reports of about what may have happened on the boats have damaged his reputation and he said someone "would have to pay for it."
Right now, the case is an open investigation. Attorneys caution that until there is a full report, even small details could determine the strength of a lawsuit or, whether there will be any lawsuits at all.
None of the attorneys quoted in this story represents anyone involved in the investigation.