County settles at $6.2 million in shooting lawsuit
October 2, 2020
Carlton County settled a federal lawsuit with a man shot by a Carlton County deputy last summer for $6.2 million earlier this week.
Shawn Michael Olthoff, 35, was paralyzed from the chest down after being shot twice by Carlton County deputy Sgt. Jason Warnygora during a Consolidated Emergency Response Team (CERT) operation on July 29, 2019. Olthoff had sued for $25 million in compensatory damages — as his paralysis is irreversible — and $10 million in punitive damages.
The lawsuit claimed Warnygora used unnecessary force by shooting Olthoff twice, that the deputy was poorly trained, and that he had been drinking prior to the incident.
Warnygora told BCA investigators that he believed Olthoff had a gun in his hand, and saw him with one hand hanging off the couch and the other (with possibly a gun) moving in the direction of the officers. Hours after the shooting, the deputy told a BCA official he drank two beers earlier in the day before responding to the CERT call. A subsequent blood alcohol test came back negative.
Olthoff is represented by Minneapolis attorney Robert Bennett, who has won or successfully negotiated a number of high-profile civil cases, including a $2.99 million settlement in the police shooting of Philando Castile and a $20 million settlement in the wrongful death case of Justine Ruszczyk by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor.
In addition to suing Warnygora personally and the county, the lawsuit also asked for damages from the cities of Moose Lake and Cloquet, which also had officers on the CERT team.
The agreement means those cities are off the hook. Additionally, the settlement does not assume fault by any of the named parties.
Attorney Joe Flynn of Jardine, Logan and O'Brien represented the county. Flynn said the settlement resolves all civil litigation stemming from the July 29, 2019 incident, adding that it allowed all parties to avoid protracted litigation that may have taken years to resolve with ever-increasing attorney bills. Had the case gone to trial, the county could have been on the hook for up to $35 million plus attorney fees, he said.
The settlement total is $6.2 million. Carlton County will pay $4.2 million toward the settlement and the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust will pay $2 million. As a consequence of Olthoff’s severe spinal cord injury and significant future medical bills, a portion of the settlement funds will be placed into trust for Olthoff’s substantial future medical needs, Flynn said.
County coordinator Dennis Genereau said the county has three options to pay the $4.2 million it owes: bond for it and pay the bonds back with levy dollars, use reserves, or a mix of both. They have decided to take the money out of reserves.
“The Board has done a good job of seeking input through closed sessions on which option would be the best,” Genereau said, adding that a smaller group of staff consulted with financial advisors on the board’s behalf. “Ultimately, it was decided that if the settlement amount was low enough we would pull it entirely from reserves, which are intended for “rainy day” situations like this.”
Search warrant gone wrong
Warnygora was part of the team that entered a trailer, owned by Olthoff’s mother, after she told them Olthoff was sleeping on a couch inside and left the door open. Similar to a SWAT team, the CERT team is made up of officers from all law enforcement agencies in the county.
The CERT team had been assembled to arrest Olthoff, who was accused of pointing a gun at another deputy two days before, when the officer pulled over the vehicle in which Olthoff was a passenger. Deputy Jokinen said Olthoff got out of the car and pointed what he believed was a firearm at the car, which led to Jokinen taking evasive action with his car and leaving the scene. Olthoff then fled the scene on foot.
A search afterward uncovered Olthoff’s cell phone and a holster with six rounds of pistol ammunition, but no gun. Over the next two days, law enforcement kept searching for Olthoff, and a felony arrest warrant was issued. Two days later, they learned from his mother that he was sleeping on her coach at a trailer park in Moose Lake.
The plan to enter the trailer did not go exactly as laid out beforehand.
According to the county’s synopsis, the first two officers who entered the residence did not use deadly force against Mr. Olthoff, who was sleeping on the couch when a flash bang device was deployed in the doorway. The third officer, Warnygora, “acting upon a number of perceived factors,” shot Mr. Olthoff two times, using his .40 caliber service pistol.
There were no criminal charges filed in the case, as the Carlton County attorney’s office ruled that the use of deadly force by Sgt. Warnygora in the process of executing a warrant for the arrest of Shawn Olthoff was “necessary, justified and authorized by law” following the completion of the BCA investigation.
“The shooting took place under rapidly occurring and dynamic circumstances in which the shooting officer reasonably believed officers were taking fire from an individual who had reportedly pointed a firearm at a law enforcement officer just two days prior,” Flynn said in a statement to the Pine Knot News Wednesday.
Both the case synopsis by Carlton County and the lawsuit state that no gun was ever found and Olthoff was unarmed.
The county’s synopsis goes into detail regarding Olthoff’s extensive criminal record — including felony third-degree burglary, theft, assault on a federal law enforcement officer, felony escape and third-degree assault charges — and what Warnygora said he thought he saw: a handgun pointing at his fellow officers. Another point of the lawsuit was Warnygora’s statement that he had consumed alcohol.
According to the complaint filed by Olthoff’s attorney, the first two officers to enter the trailer (Cloquet’s Nathan Cook and Darin Berg) said they saw Olthoff raise his hands after being commanded to do so by Cook, who was pointing a rifle at him. Both officers told the BCA they did not see a gun when they were interviewed.
“You can’t defend a lawsuit blaming the victim and an imaginary gun,” Bennett told the Pine Knot News shortly after filing the lawsuit in April.
“I’m not claiming my client is a schoolboy, but the Fourth [Amendment] either exists for the least of us or none of us,” he said of Olthoff, who has a lengthy criminal history.
Flynn said an internal investigation is pending but he could not comment on that.