• August 8, 2011

Regular readers of Minnesota Litigator will be familiar with the ADT vs. Swenson, et al. lawsuit pending before U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim (D. Minn.).  To remind regular readers and introduce new readers to the case, the tragedy is set out below in some detail.

The question many readers may ponder, after having read the story, is, “WHY ON EARTH WON’T THE ALARM COMPANY SETTLE THIS LAWSUIT?”  The only answer I can come up with is that the plaintiffs and their lawyers must be demanding beaucoup bucks and ADT would simply prefer to roll the dice with a Minnesota jury (and, of course, also preserve many bases for appeal of various decisions made along the way by the trial judge) rather than pay the queen’s ransom. 

In late July of 2006, Steven Van Keuren broke into Teri Lee’s home and tried to murder Lee with a knife. Van Keuren was arrested, charged, and released on bond a few days later. (This statement and this entire narrative is drawn from plaintiffs’ summary judgment brief.  As far as Minnesota Litigator knows, at this time, this narrative contains only allegations that plaintiffs believe they will be able to prove at trial.)

On September 26, 2006, he came back.  He drove to Lee’s home, cut the exposed outside telephone lines to her home with wire cutters, broke the glass on the  sliding glass door in the basement with a crowbar, walked up the stairs past two motion  detectors to the master bedroom, and shot both Teri Lee and her boy-friend Tim Hawkinson multiple times, killing them both, while Lee’s two children slept in neighboring rooms.

The children, two young girls, were awakened by a “thumping sound” and the sounds of screaming and gunshots.  They fled out the front door of the house.

Only then, apparently, when the two girls fled out the front door, did the ADT alarm siren sound

Shortly after her first brush with death by murder in July, Teri Lee and her boyfriend, Tim Hawkinson, had contacted ADT to discuss the possible purchase of an ADT home security alarm system in late July and August, 2006. Wisely, they wanted a security system to keep the ex-boyfriend out of the house, or at least give them some notification if Van Keuren tried to get into the home again.  They recognized the urgency, the risk, and, apparently, they did not seek to spare any expense.  They wanted to be safe.

In the aftermath of their murder, the cover of a 16-page color ADT brochure was visible among the blood-spattered literature strewn on the floor of Teri Lee’s bedroom.

In this brochure, ADT advises customers that, with the ADT system, their telephone lines would be protected and monitored.  The ADT promotional material acknowledges the vulnerability of the basement area and the telephone lines, and warns that they should be protected: “Helps keep your alarm system connected to ADT in case your regular phone service goes out.”

ADT showed Teri Lee the system design and told her there would be a glass break installed to cover the glass in the sliding glass door in the basement. Hawkinson and Lee told ADT they were concerned about the vulnerability of the outside phone lines.

On August 7, 2006, an ADT Installer claims to have installed, programmed, and tested the home security alarm system in the Lee residence. The installer knew that the outside telephone lines were vulnerable to being cut and knew that Lee had purchased a cellular backup device. The installer assumed that Lee put ADT’s “Telguard unit” in her home because there was a concern about exposure of the telephone lines; he wasn’t aware of any other reason to put one in a home.  In fact, ADT installed a Safewatch Pro® 3000EN Security System and a Telguard TG-4 cellular radio backup at the Lee residence. Both are capable of monitoring telephone lines in the event the lines are cut by an intruder.  Tragically, the ADT installer apparently did not complete the connection of the Telguard cellular backup unit to the control panel and did not enable the telephone line-fault monitor that was built into the control panel.

The installer never installed or activated a line fault monitor feature. ADT’s policy not to monitor telephone lines was never explained to Lee.  The ADT installer did not give Teri Lee a choice about whether or not to activate the telephone line fault monitor. The installer never told Lee that there was no telephone line fault monitor on the system.

When the ADT Installer performed the installation, he moved the glass break detector that had been intended to cover the sliding glass door in the basement to cover a different window in the basement and relied solely on the existing motion detector to cover the sliding glass door, though he knew the sliding glass door was particularly vulnerable.

Later on the day of the murders, an ADT Service Technician was called out to the Lee home to answer questions about the alarm system and see if he would be able to download any information from the control panel. He found the system armed when he arrived. He verified that no signals were received by ADT from the Lee home, and that Telular had also not received any signals until after he arrived.

ADT commenced a declaratory judgment action on June 21, 2007, seeking a judicial declaration that its “exculpatory clause” contained in its “Residential Services Contract” relieved ADT from all liability in excess of $500.  (So, strictly speaking, because ADT commenced the lawsuit, ADT is “plaintiff” in this lawsuit, but apparently they will switch the case-name as they head into trial so the victims’ kin are “plaintiffs” at trial rather than ADT being the named plaintiff.)

Judge Tunheim denied ADT’s motion for summary judgment on its contractual theory.  He denied summary judgment for the plaintiffs, as well.  Trial is set to begin October 3, 2011.

[Final editorial note:  The “headline” for this post overlooks that there were two victims in this terrible tragedy and, in doing so, means no disrespect to the second victim, Tim Hawkinson, Sr. or to his family.  It is simply a shorthand to highlight what Minnesota Litigator believes is at the core of this litigation — the impossible task of assigning a dollar amount against a business for its role (however one might define it, if any role) in two terrible murders.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *