Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Deconstructing the Dome: Legacy of Litigation Lingers

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Conceived in the 1970s to replace the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minneapolis’s iconic Metrodome has graced the skyline since 1982 and left its mark on Minnesota’s legal landscape as well.

Before the month is done, so will be the Metrodome. The venerable facility has been the scene of a Super Bowl (won by Washington), a pair of memorable World Series (both won by the Twins), two NCAA college basketball championships (both won by Duke) and a number of wonderful wins and devastating defeats. It also hosted wrestling matches, rock concerts, indoor roller skating, religious crusades, and a host of other professional, college, high school, and amateur sporting and recreational events during its 32-year history.

But its demise, beginning with the deflation of the roof in the middle of January and full-scale demolition thereafter, opens the way for the new, ultra-sleek $975 million-plus stadium for the Minnesota Vikings football team and other activities, slated to open in two and a half years. As it crumbles into oblivion, the Metrodome leaves behind lasting memories along with a litany of notable litigation.

Here’s a look at some of the noteworthy lawsuits in which the facility has played a role, from its conception in the 1970s to its opening in 1982 as the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome and later rechristening as the Mall of America Field.

Contraction Cases

The most well-known and important case involving the Metrodome staved-off the elimination of the Twins. Facing the imminent expiration of the Twins’ Metrodome lease and threatened by Major League Baseball’s plans to eliminate two teams (including the Twins) through “contraction,” the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission (commission), which owns and operates the Dome, sued the Twins and Major League Baseball for specific performance,
requiring the team to play the final year of its lease. The club demurred, arguing that it would be glad to pay the minimal rent due under the lease without playing any games there, which would satisfy its tenancy obligations for the remaining year of its lease.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Harry Crump granted an injunction because of the “irreparable harm” that would result if the Twins exited early and the “public interest” in assuring that the team played out the final year of the lease. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, in Metropolitan Sport Facilities Commission v. the Twins Partnership, 638 N.W.2d 214 (Minn. App. 2002), rev. denied (Minn. 02/04/2002). The appellate court reasoned that Crump properly applied the “five factors” test under Dahlberg Bros. v. Ford Motor Company, 272 Minn. 264, 137 N.W.2d 314 (1965).

The appellate tribunal held that the trial judge correctly found that there was a “substantial likelihood that the commission would prevail on the merits.” Specific performance, requiring the Twins to play at the Metrodome, was supported by the “plain language” of the lease, which authorized “any remedy allowed by law or equity.” The contention by the Twins that the law does not favor “a government mandate for continued operation of a private enterprise” was outweighed by the public financing that went into the Metrodome, which is “operated for the benefit of the public.” The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to reverse the ruling, leaving the injunction intact indefinitely.

As a result, Major League Baseball agreed not to eliminate the Twins team for three years. The club played in the Metrodome for the rest of the decade, giving it enough time to work out the arrangements for new legislation and the new Target Field, which opened in 2010, saving the Twins and major league baseball for Minneapolis.

Ticket Tribulations

The “contraction” brouhaha was preceded nearly two decades earlier by another legal battle concerning the Twins’ lease. But this one never reached the courtroom.

In 1984, two years after the Twins moved into the Dome, the team’s tribulations—its performance on the field and at the box office—prompted Calvin Griffith, the team owner, to consider moving the team to Florida, which lacked major league baseball at that time. A provision in the team’s lease constituted an “escape clause,” allowing the Twins to leave if the team failed to attract an average of 1.4 million fans per season or the average attendance in the American League for a three-year period, whichever was less. Because of two low-attendance seasons in 1982-83, the Dome needed Twins game attendance of nearly 2.5 million in 1984 to negate the escape provision and prevent the team from leaving Minnesota.

As the team was on the verge of falling below that level, a group of Twin Cities businessmen, spearheaded by Harvey Mackay, came up with a plan: Buy enough tickets for every single game to meet the threshold, which was about 30,000 tickets per game. The campaign, known as “Save the Twins,” led to the unseemly sight of the Twins playing games in a nearly empty 50,000 seat stadium, despite the sale of about half the tickets.

Despite threats of lawsuits, litigation was averted. The businessmen who purchased the tickets included a newcomer on the Twin Cities sports scene: banker Carl Pohlad.

The ticket-buying plan to plug the loophole worked. The Twins stayed, ultimately were acquired by the Pohlad family, and, within three years, won the first of two World Series at the Metrodome.

 Prior Proceedings

The legal actions that saved the Twins and spared the Metrodome were successors to prior legal proceedings a generation earlier that antedated construction of the site.

In Lifteau v. Metropolitan Sport Facilities Commission, 270 N.W.2d 749 (Minn. 1978), a Washington County bar and restaurant owner challenged the statute creating the commission, which had been empowered by the legislature to select, design, and construct a new or remodeled sports facility in the Twin Cities, to be funded by bonds issued by the Metropolitan Council. The bonds would be paid off, in part, by a 2 percent, on-sale liquor tax through most of the seven-county metropolitan area.

Then, as now, some complained about the imposition of the tax, and they carried their complaints to court. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the measure, rejecting claims that the title of the law did not properly express the subject, that the anticipated stadium was not a “public purpose,” that the statute improperly singled out the Twin Cities metropolitan area for imposition of the liquor tax while impermissibly exempting three municipalities, and that the law was not adopted by a as is 60 percent vote of the legislature, required to incur public debt.

The construction of the sports stadium, which ultimately turned into the Dome, was a “public purpose,” despite an older case, Burns v. Essling, 156 Minn. 171, 194 N.W.44 (1923), suggesting the contrary. Noting the weight of modern authority in other jurisdictions recognizing athletic venues as the proper subject of public finance, the supreme court took judicial notice of “the important part that professional sports play in our social life.”

The high court also upheld the legislative determination that the tax should be imposed on the metropolitan area because “the benefits [of the stadium] would be primarily metropolitan” and sustained the exclusion of three small communities as a “reasonable excess of legislative discretion.”

Another effort to doom the Dome failed the following year. In Eakman v. Brutger, 285 N.W.2d 95 (Minn. 1997), the supreme court affirmed a ruling of the Hennepin County District Court denying an injunction against constructing the Dome. That action was a precursor to two other lawsuits concerning construction of the Dome. A declaratory judgment action by the Minnesota Vikings in Hennepin County District Court and a challenge in Ramsey County District Court to building the facility in downtown Minneapolis raised issues concerning the legality of nearly every aspect of the stadium project. The two cases were consolidated for trial and eventually reached the Minnesota Supreme Court in Minnesota Vikings Football Club v. Metropolitan Council, 289 N.W.2d 426 (1979). After the trial court upheld the project in an extensive ruling, the supreme court eschewed ruling on any of the substantive issues regarding the legality of the domed stadium. Rather, it held that the challengers failed to file a timely appeal after their counsel had stipulated that any appeal would be brought within three days of the issuance of a ruling by the trial court.

But the Dome was not yet safe at home. On the eve of its opening in early 1982 it faced yet another challenge to its financing mechanism in Davies v. City of Minneapolis, 316 N.W.2d 498 (Minn. 1982). The lawsuit was brought by a group of Minneapolis taxpayers seeking to require a referendum on a proposed amendment to the Minneapolis city charter which, if adopted, would have repealed a hotel-motel liquor tax enacted by the city in 1979 to help finance construction of the stadium.

The Hennepin County District Court ruled against the taxpayers, and the supreme court affirmed, declaring the proposal a “manifestly unconstitutional” impairment of the contractual rights of those who had purchased the $55 million revenue bonds used to finance the stadium, which were issued after the court’s decision in the Lifteau case. The city liquor tax was “an important security provision of the bond holders’ contracts, and eliminating it, as the challengers sought, would infringe the prohibition against the payment of contracts in
Article 1, §10 of the U.S. Constitution.

Scoreboard Suits

Financing of a scoreboard at the Metrodome also sparked litigation, in fact, a judicial double-header. The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission permitted a scoreboard manufacturer to negotiate the exclusive right to advertise in exchange for the manufacturer providing the scoreboard at no charge, while also prohibiting any competitive scoreboard advertisers from advertising in the stadium. After WCCO obtained the exclusive rights, its rival media television organization KSTP challenged the procedure and advertising ban on several grounds, including violation of the Minnesota public bidding laws and infringement of its constitutional rights of freedom of speech and equal protection.

But KSTP lost both contests. The Minnesota Supreme Court, acting upon certification of the case by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals under Minn. Stat. §480.061, held that the scoreboard arrangement was not subject to public bidding requirements and was not an unlawful delegation of the commission’s powers in Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc. v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, 381 N.W.2d 842 (Minn. 1986). The 8tht Circuit later rejected KSTP’s constitutional claims in Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc. v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, 797 F. 2d 552 (8th Circ. 1986), holding that the exclusivity provisions were “reasonable and content-neutral,” and that the policy did not “discriminate” against any media entity.

Another arrangement that antedated the construction of the Dome concerned an agreement between the commission and General Mills to purchase tickets for all Vikings games in order to comply with the National Football League’s (NFL) “blackout” rule, which prohibited local telecasting of football games unless there was a sell-out 72 hours before the game time. The arrangement dated back to 1979, when the legislature passed a law requiring the commission to enter into such arrangements as a prerequisite to the issuance of stadium construction bonds.

The arrangement worked well for about five years, but General Mills then challenged the arrangement after the legislature repealed the law at the behest of the NFL in order to qualify the Metrodome as a potential site for a future Super Bowl, which it ultimately landed in 1992.

General Mills then sought to terminate the 20-year contract because of the repeal of the statute, but the Minnesota Supreme Court, affirming the decision of Hennepin County District Court Judge Debra Hedlund, ruled that the agreement continued in effect following the repeal of the statute in Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission v. General Mills, Inc., 470 N.W.2d 118 (Minn. 1991). The contract could not be abrogated because it “unambiguously” provided that the ticket purchase arrangement would continue even after repeal of the statute, whose continuing existence was not a “condition precedent” to the obligation of General Mills to perform its buy-out ticket purchase obligation.

The repeal did not violate the doctrine of separation of powers because of language in the repealing statute that stated that any such agreements “shall remain in effect throughout their terms.” That language did not “mandate that the contract remain in effect contrary to terms of the agreement” or instruct “the judiciary how to interpret the repeal.” This provision “delineates clearly the legislature’s intent that the repeal does not affect any ticket purchase agreements entered into by the Commission.”

Design Defects

The roof of the Dome has collapsed thrice, prompting litigation by the commission and its insurers against the company that provided management services for constructing the Dome and other construction participants. The Hennepin County District Court ruled in favor of the construction management company in a case concerning the first two roof collapses and ordered the commission to reimburse the legal expenses incurred in litigation, pursuant to a contractual indemnification provision.

But the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed in Century Indemnity Co. v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, 1993 WL 35930 (Minn. App. 1993), rev. denied, (Minn. 04/07/1993). The trial court erred in finding the indemnification agreement to be unambiguous. The provision of the contract requiring the commission to reimburse the construction manager “for legal expenses and suits relating to the Project” did not constitute “a sweeping indemnity clause.” The clause refers to “legal services necessary to the Project”; the clause properly means that the commission would provide legal services necessary to construction of the Dome, but that “such services do not include funding [the construction manager] when there is litigation.” Therefore, the commission was not liable for any of the legal expenses incurred by the construction manager in the construction-related litigation with the commission and its insurers.

Another defect, leading to the death of a utility repair worker at the Dome, ended unfavorably for the decedent’s widow in Graves v. McConnell, 2000 WL 719753 (Minn. App. 2000) (unpublished). An employee of the company that supplied steam for heating buildings in downtown Minneapolis was killed when high pressure steam was released into a connecting facility where employees were working near the Dome, burning and killing two crew members.

The widow of one of the decedents sued the plant operator on grounds that it was grossly negligent in checking the whereabouts of the crew after they had serviced a steam outage at the Metrodome. The plant operator authorized release of steam into an interconnect because he thought that the crew had left the area after completing repairs at the Metrodome when, in fact, they were still in the vicinity and were burned by the high-pressure release.

Affirming a ruling of the Hennepin County District Court, the appellate court upheld dismissal of the lawsuit. The claimant had recovered benefits under the Worker’s Compensation Law and was now suing a fellow employee. Fellow employees are generally “immune from liability” unless the fellow employee had a “personal duty toward the employee and acted with gross negligence.” The plan operator was engaged in “general administrative responsibility,” which did not “translate … into a personal duty” owed to the deceased member of the repair crew.

A claimant injured by a vacuum machine vehicle used to clean the Metrodome also lost a negligence claim in Alexander v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, 1988 WL 51746 (Minn. App. 1988) (unpublished). A Hennepin County jury found that there was no negligence by the vehicle driver or management of the Metrodome, and a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) for a new trial was denied.

The appellate court affirmed, noting that the record did not reflect any “lack of reasonable care by the driver of the machine or by the management of the Metrodome.” Since there was “no showing … that the driver of the vacuum machine did not use reasonable care,” the jury properly determined that there was no negligence. It was the claimant’s obligation to prove negligence; the Metrodome “did not have to prove that it was not negligent.”

The defense of immunity was denied in a case brought by a woman injured by a defective door while exiting the Dome in Rebischke v. Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, 2007 WL 2034427 (Minn. App. 2007)(unpublished). The case was brought by an elderly woman who fell, face-first, into a turnstile as she was exiting the Metrodome and was knocked over by a “wind effect” that arose when a gust flowed through the doors at the Dome. The Hennepin County District Court held that the stadium commission was not entitled to official immunity, which covers officials engaged in discretionary decision making involving professional judgment. But action deemed “ministerial” is not subject to immunity because it is not clothed with discretion. The issue, therefore, was whether the decision by the operating technician to allow the doors to open with the high static air pressure was discretionary (and subject to immunity) or ministerial (and not protected by immunity). Because the testimony reflected disputed facts regarding the “nature of operating technician’s conduct,” along with unresolved questions regarding the amount of static pressure that existed at the time of the accident, the case was remanded to flesh out the immunity issue.

Criminal Capers

The Dome and its surroundings also have been the source of their share of criminal wrongdoing. In Schreiber v. Commissioner of Revenue, 1991 WL 148966 (Minn. T.C. 1991), the tax court upheld a ruling of the commissioner of revenue assessing a controlled substance tax and penalty of $440,000 against a man found in possession of 1,100 grams of cocaine. The cocaine was found in the main’s suitcase and apprehended upon his return from a Las Vegas trip, which he had arranged with a friend while attending a baseball game at the Metrodome.

The man and his wife were planning to go to Las Vegas to pick up the cocaine. After making telephone calls from the stadium, the man indicated that his wife could not accompany him and asked his friend to do so. The drugs were picked up in Las Vegas, and brought back to the Twin Cities, where they were apprehended.

The taxpayer, who was the drug dealer and was incarcerated for the offense, was subject to the tax, notwithstanding the claims that it was his companion who was carrying them. Both parties pointed fingers at the other and disclaimed knowledge of the drugs. But most of the items in the suitcase belonged to the taxpayer, who alone had keys to it. Because he was “either in actual or in constructive possession of the drugs,” he was liable for the controlled substance tax stemming from the arrangements made initially at the Metrodome.

The Minnesota Supreme Court disallowed imposition of concurrent sentences for two aggravated robbery and assault counts stemming from an attack near the Metrodome in State v. Norregaard, 384 N.W.2d 449 (Minn. 1986). The defendant was convicted of aggravated robbery and third-degree assault stemming from an attack near the Metrodome. The Hennepin County District Court imposed and stayed concurrent sentences of 49 and 21 weeks and the court of appeals affirmed.

While upholding the convictions, the Supreme Court modified the sentence. Because both charges arose out of the same incident, multiple sentences are impermissible under Minn. Stat. §609.035, which proscribes “multiple sentences, even concurrent sentences, for two or more offenses that were committed as part of a single behavioral incident.” Therefore, the “double punishment” was impermissible and the “lesser” of the two sentences was vacated.

The omission of instructions to the jury regarding accomplice testimony was erroneous, but did not warrant reversal of criminal convictions arising out of a gang fight that occurred on New Year’s Eve at the Metrodome in State v. Lee, 683 N.W.2d 309 (Minn. 2004). The defendant was convicted in Washington County District Court of receiving stolen property for the benefit of a gang, a fifth-degree controlled substance crime, and possession of a firearm with an altered serial number. The charges flowed from the search at the home of the defendant, who was a gang member, after he and other gang members participated in a fight with a rival gang at a New Year’s celebration at the Metrodome, followed by a pair of drive-by shootings in retaliation for the fight at the Dome.

The defendant’s conviction was based in large part on testimony of an accomplice who conveyed the stolen firearms to the garage of the defendant’s home for the benefit of the gang. Under Minnesota law, a jury must be told that a defendant cannot be convicted of a crime based on the testimony of an accomplice unless the testimony is “corroborated by other evidence.”

While the trial court improperly failed to give the accomplice instruction, its error was harmless since there was ample evidence to sustain the conviction. There was evidence corroborating the testimony of the accomplice, and the state “focused” on that evidence in its closing argument, which “independently” connected the defendant to the crimes. The trial court also gave “general instructions on witness credibility [which] alerted the jury to the potential for conflicting motivations behind certain testimony.” Therefore, the lack of accomplice instruction was not grounds for reversal because “the omission did not have a significant impact on the verdict.”

The past New Year’s Eve was the last for the Metrodome. As the iconic facility ends its life, it leaves behind a rich legacy of litigation in the courts of Minnesota.

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney at the Twin Cities firm of Hellmuth & Johnson, PLLC, and has participated in several cases involving the Metrodome. 

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