FARGO, N.D. — A North Dakota judge has awarded $9.6 million to the family of a Fargo dentist killed in a murder-for-hire scheme orchestrated by the victim's Oklahoma father-in-law in an attempt to gain custody of his granddaughter.
Gene Kirkpatrick, who lived near Jones, OK, paid $3,000 for the hit on Philip Gattuso because he was unhappy with the way his son-in-law was raising his granddaughter, according to testimony in his criminal trial. Valerie Gattuso, who was Philip Gattuso's wife and Kirkpatrick's daughter, died in March 2009 after an extended illness.
“This was a strange and unique and tragic case,” said Minneapolis attorney Kathleen Flynn Peterson, who represented the Gattuso family in the wrongful death lawsuit against Kirkpatrick.
The Associated Press was unable to contact Kirkpatrick, who is serving his sentence in the South Dakota state penitentiary.
A jury in July 2011 found Kirkpatrick guilty of hiring his former handyman, Michael Nakvinda, to kill Philip Gattuso, who was beaten to death with a hammer in his south Fargo condominium. Nakvinda was convicted seven months before Kirkpatrick's trial and sentenced to life in prison.
Gattuso's brother, Roy, and his brother's orphaned daughter are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Judge Lisa Fair McEvers issued a ruling this week that calls for Kirkpatrick to pay more than $4.4 million for economic damages, $5 million for noneconomic damages, and $250,000 for punitive damages.
“No amount of money can replace their loss and make them whole,” Fair McEvers said in her ruling. “This court is well aware of the continuing loss of not having a parent to care for, provide guidance, and be present at milestones of a child's life.”
Flynn Peterson acknowledged the Gattuso family is unlikely to receive a settlement from Kirkpatrick, who said he spent most of his money on defending his criminal case and represented himself in the civil case.
“Whether the verdict is collectible or not — and I think the judge noted that — is doubtful,” Flynn Peterson said. “We are going to prepare a judgment, but what assets there may be remains to be seen. We'll have to see how that turns out.”
Court documents show Kirkpatrick argued that damage claims by the plaintiffs were excessive, but the judge said he did not provide evidence to support that assertion.
The economic damages awarded included $4.39 million in lost income and savings, nearly $1,800 in security expenses for Philip Gattuso's daughter and more than $10,000 in burial expenses. The noneconomic damages cover pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, emotional distress, fear of injury and humiliation, the judge said.
“The defendant has not disputed the pain and suffering endured by the plaintiffs and indicated he regrets the loss and pain and that nothing replaces loss of life,” the judge wrote.
Flynn Peterson, who heads the complex injury and medical malpractice group at a Minneapolis firm, also represented the Gattuso family in a wrongful-death lawsuit after Valerie Gattuso died following complications from surgery.
“I never would have imagined that we would have handled another wrongful death case for this family that really was related to that case,” Flynn Peterson said.
Roy Gattuso, who is raising Philip and Valerie Gattuso's daughter in Louisiana, said he was grateful for the ruling because it helps to show that Philip's life had meaning.
“The terrible loss of Philip will be felt by his family and friends forever,” Roy Gattuso said.